George Zimmerman shot a 17-year-old through the heart on a rainy night in February 2012. Now, finally, nearly 17 months later, a jury will try to decide whether the dead boy deserved it.
Zimmerman contends he did.
His lawyers have methodically cast doubt on the state's case against Zimmerman. They have suggested the state has not proved that the professed Christian, husband and neighborhood watchman acted with ill will or hatred when he followed Trayvon Martin into the darkness between two sets of townhouses in the gated community called the Retreat at Twin Lakes.
They have argued it was Martin who instigated the altercation by sucker-punching Zimmerman, 29, in the nose, bashed his head against a sidewalk and reached for the fully loaded handgun which Zimmerman was licensed to carry. They showed jurors an animated video which portrayed Martin as the aggressor and Zimmerman as a pathetic victim whose only means of salvation was holstered at his side.
The six women on the jury, whether they know it or not, will be the focus of intense attention. The case has sparked debates across the nation about racism, ageism, gun control, and Florida's controversial 2005 expansion of self-defense law, known as "stand your ground." Their verdict will echo through America, affirming beliefs for some, creating distrust for others.
"This is a serious, serious matter for Mr. Zimmerman," defense lawyer Mark O'Mara told them in his closing argument. "And it's a serious matter for you."
O'Mara told the jury the state based its case on conjecture, not the evidence.
"How many coulda-beens have you heard from the state in this case?" he asked. "How many what-ifs have you heard from the state in this case?"
He said the state wanted jurors to believe Zimmerman was a "crazy," aggressive, well-trained neighborhood watch captain who hunted down an innocent teenager.
Not true, he said.
Zimmerman was a caring man who had seen his neighbors victimized by a rash of burglaries, O'Mara said, many of them by young black men. It was not illegal for Zimmerman to follow Martin, he said, but prudent. He said Zimmerman voluntarily submitted to law enforcement interrogations without a lawyer after the shooting.
"If George Zimmerman intended to deceive," he said, "why would he have given six statements?"
O'Mara cautioned the jurors not to guess at what they thought happened in the darkness between those buildings.
"Though you can bring your common sense, don't bring your assumptions, don't bring your presumptions," he said. "You only get to decide on what you're certain of."
Of the inconsistencies in Zimmerman's statements to police and Fox News, he said: "You get your nose smashed and your head smashed and you answer every question they ask of you. Yeah, okay, deal with the inconsistencies."
The only moments of drama during O'Mara's three-hour closing argument came when he dragged props before the jury. He presented two cardboard cutouts of Zimmerman and Martin, which showed the difference in height, but not weight and age. He also hauled a large chunk of concrete and placed it before the jury.
"That's a sidewalk," he said after smacking the hard chunk. "And that's not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles, trying to get home."
Finally, he showed jurors an enlarged photograph of a shirtless Martin to show the boy's muscle tone. He pointed out that the autopsy photos jurors had seen during trial lacked the same tone, presumably because of blood loss, he said.
While O'Mara's remarks were measured and short on emotion, Assistant State Attorney John Guy, in his rebuttal, sounded like a preacher at a Southern Baptist revival.
"Isn't that every child's worst nightmare, to be followed on the way home in the dark by a stranger?" Guy asked the jurors. "Isn't that every child's worst fear? That was Trayvon Martin's last emotion."
Guy challenged Zimmerman's claim of self-defense, hammering on the fact that Zimmerman left his vehicle and disregarded the police dispatcher's admonishment not to follow. Would Martin still be wearing his ear buds and talking on the cell phone had he been poised for attack? he asked. Could Martin have even seen Zimmerman's holstered gun in the dark?
"There are only two people on this earth who know what really happened," Guy says. "One of them can't testify, and the other one lied."
Martin's parents sat still in the courtroom. Zimmerman watched Guy, betraying no emotion.
A rain cloud burst as the defense finished its rebuttal and an afternoon downpour cut the Florida heat. A woman and two children who had been holding placards, the only noticeable protests, hustled away from the courthouse for shelter. But a few hours later, more protesters began to gather, some representing the New Black Panther Party. A man shouted through a bullhorn.
Law enforcement officials in Sanford and Seminole County say they're prepared for civil unrest.
"At times, as individuals, we may not agree with this verdict, but as communities in this country, we respect the rule of law," said Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger. "We recognize that this case has stirred up a great deal of emotion, but there's no tension in Seminole County. . . . We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law."
Sanford police Chief Cecil Smith said the city has changed since some 30,000 protesters showed up a few months after the shooting, demanding that Zimmerman be arrested. The Police Department has reviewed practices, held community meetings and done training on bias-based policing and ethics.
"As we await this verdict, we'd like to remind everyone that the city of Sanford has been a peaceful location since that time 17 months ago," he said. "We've learned some lessons through this past 15 months. . . . More needs to be done. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that everything is peachy keen in Sanford."
But, he said, "Our community is working together to be the example, to talk about things, to put things on the table. It's our community, and when this trial passes, it will still be our community. When the light is no longer shining on Sanford, it will still be our community."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.