A man has been found not guilty of murdering a teenager in a case that has gripped and divided America.
George Zimmerman, 29, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of 17 year old Trayvon Benjamin Martin.
A jury of six women took more than 16 hours and 20 minutes to come to come to their unanimous decision that the death was justifiable.
Zimmerman, who was a neighbourhood watch volunteer, was charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting Martin on February 26, 2012.
The court was told that he had followed the unarmed youngster through a park because he looked like he was ‘up to no good.’
Zimmerman, a volunteer neighbourhood watchman, claims he shot Martin in self-defence, and that the teen punched him repeatedly before deciding to use lethal force.
The shooting of Martin, who is African-American, by Zimmerman, who is not, has fuelled new debates about racial profiling, gun-control, and self-defence laws.
As the judge announced that Zimmerman had no other business with the court just after 10pm on EST on Saturday his mother, who was sat in the court, smiled for the first time during the trial.
Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were not in court to hear the verdict. Their reaction was said to be reserved but they expressed their disappointment.
A tweet CNN claimed came from his father said: ‘I know my baby proud of fight we along with all of you put up for him’.
As the verdict drew near, police and city leaders in the Orlando suburb of Sanford and other parts of the U.S. said they were taking precautions against the possibility of mass protests or unrest.
‘There is no party in this case who wants to see any violence,’ Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger said immediately after jurors began deliberating. ‘We have an expectation upon this announcement that our community will continue to act peacefully.’
Crowds outside the courthouse were outspoken about their disappointment at the verdict, yelling ‘The system has failed us’, and hundreds took to Twitter to voice their discontentment with the justice system and jury.
Moments after the verdict was read out, people reacting on Twitter had described Zimmerman as ‘a dead man walking’.
His defence attorneys said the verdict had not sunk in for him yet, and that Zimmerman was worried about the reaction.
Zimmerman is said to have been in hiding and wears a bullet proof vest when outside, according to the New York Times.
Defence attorney Mark O Mara said: ‘[Zimmerman] has to be cautious and protective of his safety because there is a fringe element who have said on Twitter and elsewhere they want revenge.’
He added that after everyone left the room at the end of the trial, Zimmerman thanked his defence teams and then became emotional as he realised the trial was done.
‘I’m not sure how you can feel after 16 months of trauma. It’s probably going to settle on him tonight when he is with his family and realizes he doesn’t have to come back to court,’ Mr O Mara said.
Robert Zimmerman Jr said his brother was ‘going to be looking around his shoulder for the rest of his life’.
‘Now the jury has spoken, and we are exonerated as a family,’ he told CNN. ‘And more importantly, George is exonerated.’
Benjamin Crump, the attorney for the Martin family, acknowledged the disappointment of Trayvon’s supporters, as he ranked the teenager alongside civil rights heroes Medgar Evers and Emmett Till in the history of the fight for equal justice.
But he urged them not to resort to violence. ‘For Trayvon to rest in peace, we must all be peaceful,’ he said.
It took the jury five weeks to see more than 200 pieces of evidence and hear 56 witnesses in a trial that has gripped the nation, the jury heard two very different accounts of what happened on that fateful rainy night of February 26, 2012.
They had been given the chance to convict Zimmerman of manslaughter but did not do so, despite asking for a clarification of the charge earlier in the evening.
After the verdict, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said he was disappointed but respected the jury’s decision.
‘We respect the verdict but I’m disappointed. This is only the second murder case I lost. I thought he was guilty,’ he told a press conference.
Florida State Attorney Angela Corey added that they had wanted to ‘get all the facts before the jury because we felt everyone had the right to know everything’.
‘To the living we owe respect, to the dead the truth. We believe we have brought out the truth.’
She added: ‘This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms. But there is no doubt Trayvon was profiled to be a criminal.’
Ms Corey added after the verdict that she believed second-degree murder was the appropriate charge because Zimmerman’s mindset ‘fit the bill of second-degree murder’.
‘We charged what we believed we could prove,’ Ms Corey said.
Ultimately, it was the defence team who won. They praised the jury, who Mr O Mara said ‘listened, took notes [and were] as engaged as everyone in the process’.
‘We are ecstatic with the results. George Zimmerman was not guilty of anything except protecting himself in self defence,’ he added after the verdict.
He said that they would seek immunity if someone decided to try to sue Zimmerman.
Don West, who was criticised for his opening Knock Knock joke and photos of him on Twitter eating ice cream with his daughters during a break early on in the trial said he would not respond to his critics or talk about the alleged threats made against his family.
‘This trial is about George ZImmerman, not about ice creams,’ he said. ‘I still think the joke was funny but I wish I’d told it better.’
Mr O Mara said: ‘Nothing can bring back Trayvon Martin. Whenever a young life is lost it is a tragedy’ adding that he extended his sympathy to the teenager’s family.
He added however: ‘None of [the evidence] shows George Zimmerman as an aggressor.’
The prosecution had started the case with a powerful and graphic opening statement and it was in this vein they proceeded with their case.