Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith, left, addresses the media as Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, right, listens on July 4.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Jacob Langston, Pool
SANFORD, Florida (AP) — Law enforcement officials are asking residents of Sanford and surrounding Florida areas to remain peaceful after a verdict is announced in the George Zimmerman trial.
The Sanford police chief and Seminole County Sheriff made their appeal Friday shortly after jurors began deliberating in Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial.
Zimmerman says he shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in self-defense. Prosecutors say Zimmerman was a wannabe cop who took the law into his own hands after a rash of break-ins in his Sanford neighborhood.
Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith says the city has evolved since tens of thousands protested last year after Martin was killed. Civil rights leaders came to Sanford to demonstrate when Zimmerman wasn't immediately arrested.
The case provoked protests in the U.S. and a wide ranging debate over issues of race and self-defense.
Defense attorney Mark O'Mara said prosecutors hadn't met their burden of proving Zimmerman's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, he said, the murder case was built on "could've beens" and "maybes."
"If it hasn't been proven, it's just not there," O'Mara told the jury. "You can't fill in the gaps. You can't connect the dots. You're not allowed to."
In a rebuttal, prosecutor John Guy accused Zimmerman of telling "so many lies." He said the 17-year-old Martin's last emotion was one of fear as Zimmerman followed him in a neighborhood of townhomes on a rainy night Feb. 26, 2012.
"Isn't that every child's worst nightmare, to be followed on the way home in the dark by a stranger?" Guy said. "Isn't that every child's worst fear?"
The sequestered jury of six women will have to sort through a lot conflicting testimony from police, neighbors, friends and family members. Witnesses gave differing accounts of who was on top during the struggle, and Martin's parents and Zimmerman's parents both claimed that the voice heard screaming for help in the background of a police emergency call was their son's.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder, but the jury will also be allowed to consider manslaughter. Under Florida's laws involving gun crimes, manslaughter could end up carrying a penalty as heavy as the one for second-degree murder: life in prison.
Allowing the jurors to consider manslaughter could give those who aren't convinced the shooting amounted to murder a way to hold Zimmerman responsible for the death of the unarmed teen.
With the verdict drawing near, police and city leaders in Sanford and other parts of Florida said they have taken precautions for the possibility of mass protests or even civil unrest if Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, is acquitted.
There were big protests in Sanford and other cities across America last year when authorities waited 44 days before arresting Zimmerman.
Guy told the jury the case wasn't about race.
"It's about right and wrong," he said. "It's that simple."
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