SANFORD, Fla. — City Manager Norton Bonaparte and George Zimmerman lawyer Mark O’Mara had some heated moments during Zimmerman’s trial. Now that the verdict is in, they agree on at least one thing: It’s time to move on.
“Last year people were very angry and they came to Sanford to protest because George Zimmerman had not been arrested,” Bonaparte said. “Now he has been arrested. He’s been through the trial and a jury has found him not guilty. That’s the American judicial system and from that we move forward.”
This central Florida city of more than 50,000 people drew little national attention before February 26, 2012 — the night Latino neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman encountered black teen Trayvon Martin on a quiet street in a gated community here, some 20 miles northeast of Orlando.
Minutes later, Trayvon, 17, was dead of a gunshot wound. Months later, Sanford and Zimmerman remained the focus of national protests.
During the trial, O’Mara grilled Bonaparte about his decision to play 911 calls from the night of shooting for Trayvon’s family in a group setting.
“We thought it was a courtesy to let the family hear it before it was on the news,” Bonaparte testified.
TIMELINE: Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case
In a press conference after the verdict, O’Mara said his client will now need to get on with his life.
“I think he’s going to be great. I think he is still worried. Hopefully everyone will respect the jury’s verdict,” O’Mara said.
The immediate reaction Saturday night was not so accepting. Scores of protesters outside the courthouse — and many more across the nation — exclaimed disbelief as they learned Zimmerman was found not guilty.
“The system has failed!” irate demonstrators chanted here.
Bonaparte said Trayvon’s death brought to the surface several issues the city needed to deal with.
“There were issues that had to do with the African American community and the Sanford Police Department that were not being brought to my attention until after Trayvon was shot and killed,” Bonaparte said.
Bonaparte said he is now using his new awareness to work with new Police Chief Cecil Smith to make sure Sanford’s black residents know the police department represents them and is willing to work with them.
Natalie Jackson, a Sanford native and lawyer for Trayvon’s family, was disappointed in the verdict but said Trayvon’s death has led to positive changes in the city where he died.
“Sanford is changed for the better,” she said.
George Zimmerman, the man accused of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, has been found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the case that has gripped the nation.
The trial happened, Jackson said, because “people took to social media and 2.2 million Americans signed a petition on change.org and demanded — not in an effort to persecute George Zimmerman — but in an effort to say a black 17-year-old child should be able to walk home from the store and not be shot.”
“They may have saved the life of another child.”
Soon after the verdict, Jackson’s mother, Francis OIiver, curator of a museum dedicated to a black neighborhood in Sanford, expressed a similar sentiment.
Oliver said she began pushing for Trayvon’s killer to be arrested the day after the shooting. She later encouraged her daughter, Jackson, to become part of the legal team for Trayvon’s parents.
“When the verdict came in, it seemed like the bottom fell out of my heart,” Oliver said. “I went numb.”
But Oliver said the people were heard. She noted that Zimmerman was arrested, that former Sanford police chief Bill Lee was fired, and that the new police chief has begun sending out officers to meet people in their neighborhoods.
For Zimmerman, the removal of the court’s ankle monitor may not mean the end of the odyssey. Robert Zimmerman Jr., Zimmerman’s brother, spoke to CNN after the verdict and expressed concern for his brother’s safety.
“He will be looking around his shoulder the rest of his life,” he said.
O’Mara acknowledged that people who think Zimmerman killed Trayvon for racial reasons could react violently. “He has to be cautious and protective of his safety,” O’Mara said.
Zimmerman could even face more criminal charges — the NAACP is leading a push for federal civil rights charges.
Zimmerman may have to go into hiding and be unable to live a normal life for some time, said Jose Baez, the defense attorney who successfully defended Casey Anthony, a Florida mother accused of killing her daughter in a high-profile capital murder case.
“The end is not near for George Zimmerman,” he said.