SANFORD -- Seventeen months after Trayvon Martin was shot dead — and after 24 days of trial and 3 1/2 hours of deliberation — jurors retired Friday night without deciding whether George Zimmerman murdered the Miami Gardens teen.
That means the closely watched saga — with supporters of both sides urging calm — will stretch out at least one more day as the six jurors resume deliberating at 9 a.m. Saturday.
Friday night’s jury deliberations became a cliffhanger in a trial that has captured worldwide attention, casting scrutiny on U.S. race relations and Florida’s much criticized self -defense law .
“There is no tension in Seminole County,” Sheriff Don Eslinger told reporters after the case went to the jury, as he urged zero tolerance for lawlessness.
But there was at least some strain evident outside the Seminole criminal courthouse, where a spirited but mostly peaceful group of about 50 protestors, many African American, rallied throughout the afternoon amid a throng of reporters and deputies.
After court, as dozens lingered, a few supporters from each side exchanged words but not blows, and deputies reported no arrests.
“If Zimmerman is convicted there should not be inappropriate celebrations because a young man lost his life,” prominent Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who pushed for Zimmerman’s arrest last year, said in a statement released Friday.
“And if he is not convicted we should avoid violence because it will only lead to more tragedies. Self-destruction is not the road to reconstruction.”
Zimmerman’s family also released a statement.
“The judicial system has run its course, pray for justice, pray for peace, pray for our country,” it said.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with the February 2012 slaying of the teen, who was in Sanford visiting his father after he was suspended from Dr. Michael Krop High in North Miami-Dade.
His killing focused attention on Florida’s self-defense law, which critics say promoted vigilante justice, while prominent black civil rights leaders staged rallies for Zimmerman’s arrest.
Sanford police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman after he claimed self-defense and Gov. Rick Scott later appointed prosecutors from Jacksonville to investigate. Zimmerman was arrested 44 days later.
The trial began June 10 as lawyers selected an all-female, six-person jury; of the jurors, five are white, one is Hispanic.
Over 50 witnesses testified, including the mothers of both Trayvon and Zimmerman, each of whom said the voice crying for help on a neighbor’s 911 call belonged to her son.
Prosecutors have sought to show Zimmerman as an over-zealous neighborhood watchman who falsely assumed Trayvon was a criminal prowling the Retreat at Twin Lakes community.
“A teenager is dead. He’s dead through no fault of his own,” prosecutor Bernardo de la Rionda told jurors in fiery closing arguments Thursday. “He’s dead because another man made an assumption...because his assumptions were wrong, Trayvon Benjamin Martin no longer walks on this earth.”
On Friday, it was the defense’s turn, with Mark O’Mara providing a contrast in style. He began with calm philosophical musings on the U.S. trial system, invoking Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, warning jurors not to “connect the dots” for prosecutors who have the burden of proving Zimmerman is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“George Zimmerman is not guilty if you have a reasonable doubt he acted in self-defense,” O’Mara told jurors.
O’Mara emphasized the important role jurors have in the U.S. justice system, telling them “You guys are it. You guys are living the Constitution,” while repeatedly describing his client’s “absolute innocence.”.
He also sought to pick apart the state’s contention that Zimmerman was a frustrated would-be cop fed up with neighborhood burglaries. Zimmerman did want to be a cop — or a lawyer, O’Mara noted. “He wanted to help,” he said.
“Tell me one witness who said George Zimmerman patrolled that neighborhood,” O’Mara said, adding: “Not one.”
O’Mara also encouraged jurors to consider Zimmerman’s call to a non-emergency police number, saying there was no evidence he followed Trayvon after a dispatcher told him he didn’t need to pursue the teen. O’Mara noted a weather report explains the sound on the phone of Zimmerman seemingly chasing Trayvon.
“The wind was up that night,” O’Mara said.
He also played a vivid computer animation that showed a Trayvon avatar hitting the figure representing Zimmerman, then straddling him on the grass beside a concrete walkway. The 911 tape that captured the cries of the struggle and the fatal gunshot played over the animation.
O’Mara then asked jurors to observe a four-minute silence to show the amount of time the encounter lasted — and suggesting how long Trayvon had to return home had he not engaged Zimmerman.
“That’s how long Trayvon Martin had to run ... about four minutes,” O’Mara said.
The defense attorney, over three hours, stressed that Zimmerman’s state of mind — fearful — was key. He called the photos of Zimmerman’s injuries “icing on the cake.” It was Trayvon who committed the crime, O’Mara suggested.
“Had Trayvon Martin been shot through the hip and survived, what do you think he would have been charged with? Aggravated battery, two counts?” O’Mara asked.
The lawyer finished in dramatic fashion: by carrying a chunk of concrete into court and plopping it on the floor, telling jurors it was “disgusting” for prosecutors to suggest Trayvon Martin was “unarmed.” The defense has said Trayvon bashed Zimmerman’s head into a sidewalk during the struggle.
“That’s a sidewalk,” O’Mara said. “That is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles, trying to get home.”
Afterward, prosecutor John Guy delivered the final portion of the state’s closing argument, aiming for the heartstrings of the jury. He repeatedly referred to the “hate” in Zimmerman’s heart. And he frequently called Trayvon a “child” — most of the jurors are mothers.
“Was that child not in fear when he was running away from that defendant?” Guy asked.
Guy said Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, was not defending himself as he has insisted. “This case not about standing your ground. It’s about staying in your car, as he was taught to do.”
Jurors began deliberating at 2:30 p.m., at one point asking the judge for an inventoried list of the evidence.