A jury of six women late Saturday found that George Zimmerman shot to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to save his own life on a rainy night in February 2012 when the two met in a gated suburban neighborhood.
After deliberating 16 hours and 20 minutes over two days, jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
Zimmerman, 29, showed little emotion as the verdict was read about 10 p.m.
For 17 months, the case has held the attention of a nation still divided by racial differences, exposing old tensions and sparking debate about gun control and Florida's expanded self defense laws. Sanford police were slow to arrest Zimmerman, prompting flashes of protest in cities across the country. A garment – a sweatshirt with a hood – became a political statement.
Zimmerman's attorneys said their client would never have been arrested had the races been reversed. Martin was black. Zimmerman was Hispanic.
"If George Zimmerman was black, he would have never been charged with a crime," Mark O'Mara said. "This became a focus for a civil rights event. They decided George Zimmerman was going to be a person they could blame … none of which was supported by the facts."
O'Mara said Zimmerman was ecstatic with the verdict and that the meaning won't set in for some time.
"He can actually realize that he doesn't have to come back to the courthouse tomorrow or ever again." O'Mara said. "George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self defense."
"I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was disgraceful," said Zimmerman lawyer Don West. "I'm thrilled that this jury kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty."
State prosecutors said their biggest challenge was taking over a case late and outside their jurisdiction.
"It was a challenge when the governor gave this case to us," said State Attorney Angela Corey, a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. "We did the best we could."
Also difficult was trying to prove Zimmerman was guilty of murder or manslaughter under Florida's expanded self-defense law.
"Justifiable use of deadly force is one of the most difficult areas of the law," Corey said.
Earlier in the evening, jurors had sent a note to the judge asking for clarification about the charge of manslaughter.
"May we please have clarification on the instructions regarding manslaughter," Judge Debra Nelson read from the jurors' note.
Lawyers for the state and Zimmerman's defense decided to respond by asking the jury to be more specific.
"The court cannot engage in general discussions but may be able to address a specific question regarding clarification of the instructions regarding manslaughter," they wrote back to the jury. "If you have a specific question, please submit it."
Jurors, who were sequestered during the trial, did not immediately respond but continued deliberating as the sun fell and night descended on protesters gathered in front of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center.
Prosecutors said they accomplished the goal of bringing the case to a jury.
"We felt that everyone had a right to know everything about this case," Corey said. "We believe we brought out the truth on Trayvon Martin.
Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, who tried the case for the state, said he was disappointed, but respected the jury's verdict.
West, who faced personal attacks during the trial for a bad joke during opening arguments and squabbling with Judge Nelson, said, "There's no winners here. There are also no monsters here."
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Martin's parents, Tracy and Sabrina, thanked them, saying they "made Sanford and many other cities safer for our children."
"The whole word was looking at this case for a reason," Crump said. "We wanted to see how far we have come in America in terms of racial justice."
He said Martin's parents, who weren't in the courtroom to hear the verdict, were heartbroken, but they thanked their supporters.
"To everybody that attended a rally," Crump said. "To the millions of people that signed petitions. To the prosecution. … To everybody that put their hoodies up, and to everybody that said, 'I am Trayvon,' his family expresses their heartfelt gratitude."
Police and civic leaders have pleaded for calm in Sanford and across the country after the verdict.
"There is no party in this case who wants to see any violence," Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger said. "We have an expectation upon this announcement that our community will continue to act peacefully."
In New York on Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton said that no matter the verdict, any demonstrations that follow it must be peaceful.
On Saturday morning, Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, shared on Twitter what she called her favorite Bible verse: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
Outside the courthouse, as news of the verdict spread, some screamed. Others chanted: "No justice! No peace!" The glare of hot lights from the surrounding television cameras lit the field a group of protesters had occupied all day, those supporting Martin far outnumbering the handful of those calling for Zimmerman's freedom. Before long, it was all but abandoned.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected]