Zimmerman apology surprised courtroom

Saturday , April 21, 2012 - 8:07 AM

Audra D.S. Burch

SANFORD, Fla. -- George Zimmerman, granted a $150,000 bond, surprised a packed Florida courtroom Friday when he took the witness stand to tell Trayvon Martin's parents he was sorry for the loss of their 17-year-old son.

Clean-shaven, handcuffed and wearing a charcoal suit, gray tie and shackles, the volunteer neighborhood watch captain faced Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin for the first time since he shot their son to death in a Feb. 26 encounter that set off a national debate about race, racial profiling and Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law.

"I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was," Zimmerman said, after taking the witness stand about two hours into the hearing. "I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. And I did not know if he was armed or not."

As Zimmerman spoke in a soft, even voice, Martin's parents, sitting in the second row, remained expressionless. Fulton, who had publicly asked for an apology, looked away.

When a prosecutor asked him why he had waited so long to express his condolences to the family of the Miami Gardens teen, he responded, "I was told not to communicate with them."

Later, the family's lawyer, Benjamin Crump, called the statement "a self-serving apology" designed to win Zimmerman release from jail until his trial on the second-degree murder charge.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Seminole County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. granted the $150,000 bond -- generally considered a reasonable amount by Florida standards -- along with a set of restrictions for Zimmerman. Under the conditions, Zimmerman must wear an electronic tracking device, although he may be allowed to leave the state. He cannot have any contact with Martin's family, carry firearms or consume alcohol or illegal drugs. He must abide by a curfew between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. and check in with authorities every three days. He surrendered his passport at the beginning of Friday's hearing.

Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, said it would be several days before his client, who is indigent, is released because Zimmerman needs time to come up with bail money. O'Mara also needs time to work out the details of the electronic tracking device. Zimmerman's release date and location while he awaits the trial will remain secret because of threats made against him, O'Mara acknowledged.

Zimmerman, 28, fatally shot the teenager in a gated townhouse community in Sanford. Martin, who was on a 10-day suspension from his Miami-Dade high school, was spending time with his father and the father's girlfriend at her home at the time of the shooting.

As Trayvon walked back to the home from a convenience store, Zimmerman spotted him. He told police the teen looked suspicious and followed him. Minutes later, they had a physical altercation and Zimmerman shot Martin. Zimmerman was not initially charged by Sanford police, who cited the state's Stand Your Ground law. That lack of arrest fueled rallies and protests across the nation.

Charged last week, he faces a possible life sentence. Zimmerman has said he was acting in self-defense, a claim that may have been bolstered Friday when ABC News published what it said was an exclusive photo taken three minutes after Zimmerman shot Trayvon, showing the back of Zimmerman's head with blood trickling down.

Just before the bond hearing ended, Martin's parents rushed out of the fifth-floor courtroom, visibly angered by the judge's bail ruling and the surprise apology.

"They are devastated, completely devastated. Nine days after the killer of their son is arrested, they learned he will be released," Crump said. "Zimmerman makes a self-serving apology in court 50 days later. (Yet) the 'Real George Zimmerman' website ... never once said I'm sorry. Why today?"

O'Mara successfully argued for a bond for his client by challenging the facts, evidence and language in the probable cause affidavit. He grilled a state attorney's office investigator, Dale Gilbreath, who admitted that the state does not have evidence to indicate who actually started the fight. O'Mara also painted Martin as the aggressor and said Zimmerman told police that the teen put his hand over Zimmerman's nose and mouth so he could not breathe during the confrontation.

Zimmerman's wife and parents, testifying by phone for safety reasons, portrayed him as an honest man and a mentor who dreamed of becoming a judge or magistrate. They said he was peaceful and had a soft spot for children and the homeless.

"I have never known him to be violent unless he was provoked, and then he would turn the other cheek," said his father, Robert Zimmerman, a retired magistrate who has lived in Central Florida the last five years.

Arguing the family has limited resources, O'Mara asked the judge to set the bail at $15,000. Earlier, Robert Zimmerman had testified that he is a disabled veteran and his wife is retired. They own a home with a mortgage but have little in savings.

Assistant State Attorney Bernardo de la Rionda, who handled the hearing for special prosecutor Angela Corey, asked for a $1 million bond -- or none at all. He contended in court that Martin had been minding his own business and was not committing a crime when he became Zimmerman's target. He said Zimmerman has a violent past: In 2005, Zimmerman took anger management classes after a law enforcement officer accused him of attacking him as he tried to arrest Zimmerman's friend. He was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer and obstruction of justice, charges that were later dropped when he entered pretrial intervention. He was also accused by his ex-fiancee of domestic abuse, but no charges were filed. Minutes before Lester ruled on the bond motion, Zimmerman took the stand, his stride slowed by shackles at his feet and waist. When he began to express his condolences, there were gasps in the courtroom and Tracy Martin began to cry.

"It is very unusual, uncommon for a defendant charged with a homicide to testify at a bond hearing," said Miami lawyer David Weinstein, a former assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida. "I think it humanized Zimmerman. Right now, the public perception is tilted against him, at least that is the way it appears. Today, you saw him clean-shaven, wearing a suit and tie, and looking a lot younger than in the pictures we've seen."

O'Mara said Zimmerman's words were sincere.

"It's easy to say we are pandering to the family or trying to gain some favor with them. That was not George's purpose," O'Mara said. "Aside from the legal arguments ... there exists a human side where a young man's life is lost and that should not be denied, ignored or minimized. George decided to say what he wanted to say."

The judge also announced Friday that court records in the case will likely be unsealed soon. Several news agencies, including The Miami Herald, are challenging an earlier ruling in the case sealing the records. Lester said the records would be made available to the public with any sensitive information redacted. He said a hearing will be held Friday if additional details needed to be worked out.

And in Sanford, which for weeks has worked to keep calm in a racially volatile case, City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. said the city is ready to handle Zimmerman's release, though he offered no details. On Saturday, a rally is scheduled, led by Pastor Terry Jones in support of "the constitutional rights of Trayvon and Zimmerman," according to his website. The church leader made headlines last year when he threatened to, and later burned a Quran.

For at least Friday night, Zimmerman will remain an inmate of Seminole County's John E. Polk Correctional Facility. And then, if he makes bond, he'll begin living in seclusion until trial. Added O'Mara: "He is happy that he going home and will be with his family."

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(c)2012 The Miami Herald

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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