President Barack Obama last night called for "calm reflection", after a Florida jury's acquittal of neighbourhood watch man George Zimmerman for the murder of unarmed African- American teenager Trayvon Martin sparked pockets of protests in some major US cities.
“I know this case has elicited strong passions,” said Mr Obama. “And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
He called for action to “stem the tide of gun violence” in the US.
Rights activists condemned the Saturday night verdict in a killing that stirred national debate about racial profiling and gripped the public. Protesters took to the streets in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and Philadelphia to denounce what they saw as the US justice system again failing black Americans.
Mr Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, shot Martin (17) on February 26th, 2012. He said it was in self-defence after the teenager knocked him down and slammed his head against the ground while he patrolled an area in Sanford, a town of 54,000 residents, not far from Disney World in Orlando.
After a three-week trial in Sanford and 16 hours of deliberations over two days, six female jurors found Mr Zimmerman not guilty of murder or manslaughter at 10pm on Saturday night. They believed his account that he was justified in shooting the teenager because he feared that he was threatened with harm or that his life was in danger.
The prosecution contented that Mr Zimmerman spotted the hoodie-clad Martin and assumed he was a criminal and that he initiated the fight that led to the shooting with Mr Zimmerman's legally held handgun.
The killing became a cause célèbre for civil rights groups highlighting what they argued were the consequences of racial profiling in American life and generating discussions on race relations in US society, even though the trial judge did not permit arguments around race in the courtroom.
Even US president Barack Obama rowed in on the debate following Martin’s killing, saying a month after the shooting: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin”, and promising the Martin family that the authorities would “get to the bottom of exactly what happened”.
Mr Zimmerman (29) smiled slightly as the verdict was read, while his wife and several friends wept in court. Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, the parents of the slain teenager, were not in court.
'Annals of history'
Benjamin Crump, their attorney, said in a statement released on their behalf that "Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice for all," referring to two notorious racially motivated murders of the 1950s and 1960s.
Rights activist Al Sharpton, who supported the Martin family during the case, called Mr Zimmerman's acquittal an "atrocity" and "probably one of the worst situations that I have seen".
“What this jury has done is establish a precedent that when you are young and fit a certain profile, you can be committing no crime . . . and be killed and someone can claim self-defence,” he said.
Jesse Jackson, another prominent rights activist, appealed for calm following the verdict, writing on Twitter: "Avoid violence, it will lead to more tragedies. Find a way for self construction not destruction in this time of despair."
Several hundred protesters marched peacefully in downtown San Francisco. Many carried placards with slogans including: "The people say guilty."
In Chicago demonstrators chanted: “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” while protestors also gathered at Times Square in New York.
While Mr Zimmerman has walked free from a second-degree murder charge, he could still face either a civil rights lawsuit or civil suit for damages from the Martin family, similar to the case taken against OJ Simpson after he was acquitted of charges in the 1994 killing of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson.
Civil rights group the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People is pressing the US department of justice to file a lawsuit against Mr Zimmerman over a violation of federally protected civil rights, accusing him of racial profiling which led to Martin’s shooting.