SANFORD, Fla. — Police prepared for possible protests or even violence as a high-profile U.S. trial in the murder of an unarmed black teen neared its end Thursday.
Neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, saying he fired in self-defence during a nighttime confrontation in February 2012 in his Florida gated community, where Martin was visiting family. Zimmerman says Martin was slamming his head into the concrete pavement when he fired his gun.
The case drew national attention and protests when Zimmerman, 29, wasn’t arrested for weeks after the shooting, and racial tensions have been exposed.
Jurors could begin deliberating as early as Friday. The defence was expected to give closing arguments Friday morning.
Prosecutors have portrayed Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, as an aspiring police officer who assumed Martin was up to no good and took the law into his own hands.
As their closing arguments continued Thursday, police and city leaders in Florida said they have prepared for the possibility of mass protests or even civil unrest if Zimmerman is acquitted, particularly in African-American neighbourhoods where passions run strongest over the case.
“It’s all right to be vocal, but we don’t want to be violent,” said the Rev. Walter T. Richardson, a longtime pastor and chairman of Miami-Dade County’s Community Relations Board. “We’ve already lost one soul and we don’t want to lose any more.”
The situation is especially sensitive in Miami, where deadly rioting occurred in 1980 in mostly-black neighbourhoods after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating death of a black Marine Corps veteran during a stop for a traffic violation.
The Miami-Dade Police Department’s intelligence operation has been combing social media to monitor signs of unusual interest in Zimmerman’s trial.
The judge has ruled that jurors can consider a lesser charge of manslaughter for Zimmerman. But because of the way Florida law imposes longer sentences for crimes committed with a gun, manslaughter could end up carrying a penalty as heavy as the one for second-degree murder: life in prison.
To win a second-degree murder conviction, prosecutors must prove Zimmerman showed ill will, hatred or spite — a burden the defence has argued the state failed to meet.
To get a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors must show only that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification.
Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda told jurors that Zimmerman wanted to be a police officer and that’s why he followed Martin through his neighbourhood, even though the teen wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“He assumed Trayvon Martin was a criminal. That is why we are here,” de la Rionda said.
De la Rionda argued that Zimmerman showed ill will and hatred when he whispered profanities to a police dispatcher over his cellphone while following Martin through the neighbourhood.