By Mike Schneider
and Kyle Hightower
SANFORD, FLA.: With police and civic leaders urging calm, a jury began deliberating George Zimmerman’s fate Friday after hearing dueling portraits of the neighborhood watch captain: a cop wannabe who took the law into his own hands or a well-meaning volunteer who shot Trayvon Martin because he feared for his life.
As the jury got the murder case, police in this Orlando suburb went on national television to plead for peace in Sanford and across the country, no matter what 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.”
During closing arguments, Zimmerman’s lawyers put a concrete slab and two life-size cardboard cutouts in front of the jury box in one last attempt to convince the panel Zimmerman shot the unarmed black 17-year-old in self-defense while his head was being slammed against the pavement.
Attorney Mark O’Mara used the slab to make the point that it could serve as a weapon. He showed the cutouts of Zimmerman and Martin to demonstrate that the teenager was considerably taller. And he displayed a computer-animated depiction of the fight based on Zimmerman’s account.
He said prosecutors hadn’t met their burden of proving Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, he said, the case was built on “could’ve beens” and “maybes.”
“If it hasn’t been proven, it’s just not there,” O’Mara said. “You can’t fill in the gaps. You can’t connect the dots. You’re not allowed to.”
In a rebuttal, prosecutor John Guy accused Zimmerman of telling “so many lies.” He said Martin’s last emotion was fear as Zimmerman followed him through the gated townhouse community on the rainy night of Feb. 26, 2012.
“Isn’t that every child’s worst nightmare, to be followed on the way home in the dark by a stranger?” Guy said. “Isn’t that every child’s worst fear?”
One juror, a young woman, appeared to wipe away a tear as Guy said nothing would ever bring back Martin.
The sequestered jury of six women — all but one of them white — will have to sort through a lot of conflicting testimony from police, neighbors, friends and family members.
Jurors deliberated for three and a half hours when they decided to stop Friday evening. About two hours into their discussions, they asked for a list of the evidence. They will resume deliberations Saturday morning.
Witnesses gave differing accounts of who was on top during the struggle, and Martin’s parents and Zimmerman’s parents both claimed that the voice heard screaming for help in the background of a 911 call was their son’s.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder, but the jury will also be allowed to consider manslaughter. Under Florida’s laws involving gun crimes, manslaughter could end up carrying a penalty as heavy as the one for second-degree murder: life in prison.
The judge’s decision to allow the jury to consider manslaughter was a potentially heavy blow to the defense: It could give jurors who aren’t convinced the shooting amounted to murder a way to hold Zimmerman responsible for the killing.
To win a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors must show only that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification.