President Barack Obama called for calm on Sunday after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, saying his death was a tragedy and that the country should seek ways to stem gun violence.
Cleared by a Florida jury late on Saturday, Zimmerman walked free from criminal charges in the shooting death of Martin, but still faces public outrage, a possible civil suit and demands for a federal investigation.
The six women jurors who deliberated for 16 hours over two days found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in a case that has polarized the U.S. public. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense while civil rights activists said the shooting was racially motivated.
"We are a nation of laws and a jury has spoken," Obama, the first black U.S. president, said in a statement. "I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son."
Obama, who last year said that "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," added that he was aware the Florida case has elicited strong feelings. "And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher," he said.
The president urged Americans to broaden "the circle of understanding and compassion" in their communities and put some of the emotion the case has aroused into curtailing gun violence.
"We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis," he said. "We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this."
"That's the way to honor Trayvon Martin," he added.
Critics contend Zimmerman wrongly suspected 17-year-old Martin of being a criminal because he was black, making it civil rights issue, while gun rights supporters saw Zimmerman as a persecuted hero who was exercising his right to bear arms assured by the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment.
Zimmerman's lawyers argued he acted in self-defense the night of Feb. 26, 2012, when he and Martin met inside a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford. They accuse civil rights advocates of wrongly injecting the issue of race.
'SUCH A SHAME'
"It was such a shame. The whole case nearly destroyed George from Day One. ... That they put a racism spin on this prosecution just hurt him very deeply," said John Donnelly, a close friend of Zimmerman who testified in the trial.
In Sanford, Valarie Houston, pastor of the Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, dedicated a Sunday morning prayer service to Martin.
"I am hurt. I am sad. I am disappointed and my heart is overwhelmed with pains," Houston said. "I thought in my heart that justice would be served."
Civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), urged the Justice Department to pursue federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
Jealous said Martin's family may bring a civil suit against Zimmerman but said federal criminal charges must be filed because evidence suggests race was a factor in the case.
He told CNN the black community is upset with a situation in which "our young people have to fear the bad guys and the good guys. The robbers and the cops and the self-appointed community watch volunteer who think that they're keeping folks safer."
Sharpton, who called the verdict "a slap in the face to the American people," cited the example of Rodney King, the man whose videotaped beating by Los Angeles police triggered rioting two decades ago after a state criminal trial found the police officers not guilty. Later, the Justice Department brought a federal case that resulted in the conviction of two officers.
The Justice Department has not commented on the case.
Zimmerman, 29, who is white and Hispanic, spotted Martin from his car and called police, believing Martin to be suspicious. The teenager, who was staying in the neighborhood at the home of his father's fiancee, was walking back from a convenience store where he bought candy and a soft drink.
Minutes later, after Zimmerman got out of his car, the two engaged in a fight that left Zimmerman with a bloody nose and head injuries. The encounter ended when Zimmerman shot Martin once through the heart with a 9mm pistol.
Prosecutors had to prove that Zimmerman committed a crime in pursuing and killing Martin and that he did not act in self-defense.
The tense drama that had been building for 16 months climaxed with a court clerk's late-night reading of the "not guilty" verdict. Zimmerman showed no emotion at first, but later broke into a smile after sitting down.
The jurors were sequestered during the three weeks of testimony and remained anonymous by court order. They declined to speak with reporters.
The court unshackled Zimmerman from a monitoring device he had been wearing while on bail. He previously only left home in a disguise and body armor, his lawyer said. His brother said he would remain out of public view for some time.
The acquittal will weaken any wrongful death civil lawsuit that Martin's family might bring, and Zimmerman's lead defense lawyer, Mark O'Mara, predicted Zimmerman would win immunity from a civil suit.
Demonstrators continued outside the Seminole County Courthouse where the trial was held chanted "No justice, no peace" before and after the verdict. Protests broke out in some U.S. cities including Oakland and Washington. The activist group Act Now to Stop War and End Racism called demonstrations on Sunday in New York, Boston, San Francisco and other cities.