President Obama has urged Americans to move on after George Zimmerman's acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin, but the controversy surrounding the racially charged case appears destined to continue. Protesters held rallies in cities across the nation, and riot police on Monday arrested several people in a group of 80 protesters who gathered in Hollywood, Calif., chanting, "No justice, no peace."
Zimmerman has been reclusive since he was accused of second-degree murder for shooting Martin, an unarmed black teen who the white, Latino neighborhood watch volunteer tailed after spotting him in his gated Sanford, Fla., neighborhood — where Martin, who lived outside Miami, was visiting. Late Saturday, though, Zimmerman was cleared to leave the courthouse a free man. What does the future hold for him?
The "not guilty" verdict does not mean Zimmerman can put his legal troubles entirely behind him. Donna Leinwand Leger and Yamiche Alcindor noted at USA Today that Martin's parents still can sue Zimmerman in civil court for wrongful death. After O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, their families filed such a lawsuit, and won a $35 million judgment.
And that is not the only kind of court case Zimmerman could face. NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous posted a petition at MoveOn.org calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to pursue a case against Zimmerman for allegedly violating the 17-year-old Martin's civil rights. "The most fundamental of civil rights — the right to life — was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin," Jealous wrote in the petition.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged the Justice Department to look deeper into the case now that a jury has cleared Zimmerman of murder and manslaughter for shooting Martin, which Zimmerman says he did because he feared for his life after he and Martin started fighting. "This isn't over with," Reid said Sunday. Several legal experts, however, told The Associated Press that the Justice Department would have to show that Zimmerman's actions were unjustified and racially motivated, which Florida prosecutors have already tried and failed to do.
Now that Zimmerman has been found not guilty, however, his protection against double jeopardy means he can't be charged again in criminal court for killing Martin. Zimmerman has reportedly gone into hiding — possibly out of the state. Eventually, friends say, he would like to go to law school — he was a credit shy of an associate's degree in criminal justice, but he got kicked off campus because authorities thought he posed a danger.
"Everybody said he was a cop-wannabe but he's interested in law," said Leanne Benjamin, a Zimmerman friend. "He sees it as a potential path forward to help other people like himself."
Still, starting over is unlikely to be easy. Chris Francescani at Reuters noted that Zimmerman has taken to going out in disguise, and wearing a bulletproof vest because he fears he will be attacked. And like other defendants cleared in high-profile cases — Casey Anthony, O.J. Simpson — there is a huge part of the public that sees him as a killer who got away with murder.
Zimmerman's lawyers can also start playing offense to repair his name. Erik Wemple at The Washington Post said their first step will almost certainly be to resume his defamation lawsuit against NBC News over its controversial editing of his 911 call. In the full version, Zimmerman described Martin as wandering around, looking suspicious, and, when asked his race by the dispatcher, said Martin appeared to be black. The edited version simply says Martin "looks like he's up to no good. He looks black," which, Wemple said, made Zimmerman sound like "a hardened racial profiler."
There is one specific action Zimmerman is free to do — he can collect the gun he used to shoot Martin. His lawyer, Mark O'Mara, said Zimmerman needs it for protection now more than ever. "There are a lot of people out there who actually hate him," O'Mara said, "though they shouldn't." Zimmerman's brother, Robert, said that despite the acquittal, George Zimmerman "is going to be looking over his shoulder the rest of his life."