George Zimmerman was acquitted on all counts by a six-member Florida jury just before 10 p.m. Saturday evening, bringing to an end a legal battle that began with a February 2012 shooting in a gated Florida community and that became a flash point for views on race relations, gun rights, and self-defense. After hearing the verdict, Judge Debra Nelson told Zimmerman he was free to go immediately.
The jury reached a verdict after approximately 15 hours of deliberation, beginning on Thursday afternoon. This capped a trial that began at the tail end of June and that was widely derided as a legal and media circus, between wall-to-wall CNN coverage, knock-knock jokes by attorneys, and tweeted selfies of lawyers eating ice-cream cones after their day in court.
That Zimmerman shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin was never in doubt, but legally it was not relevant to the case. Under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, people carrying loaded weapons are permitted to use deadly force if they have a reasonable fear of bodily harm. Zimmerman's attorneys argued — and the jury clearly agreed — that the defense could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had acted with malicious intent.
Given the broad permission that a Stand Your Ground law gives Floridians to use deadly force — it is essentially a license to kill without consequence, as we saw this evening — it's accurate (if depressing) to recognize that the jurors in the Zimmerman trial probably followed Florida law by acquitting Zimmerman of second-degree murder. That he was acquitted of manslaughter, a lesser charge that does not require prosecutors to show "a deranged mind" or ill will, surprised more people. Many who have followed the Martin case since last winter had too much invested in it morally to truly believe that Zimmerman would walk free.
But once the verdict came down, Twitter reactions seemed to be split — either rage, for those who had held out hope for a guilty verdict, or resignation, for those who believed that the cards had always been stacked in Zimmerman's favor. The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim fell into the latter category:
So you can shoot a kid and say you were scared and get off? Ok, good to know— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) July 14, 2013
The post-trial press conference, at which both prosecution and defense lawyers took victory laps and joked with one another, didn't do much to dispel the notion that this entire controversy was treated as a career stepping stone for everyone involved in it — aside, of course, from the dead child at its center.