TAMPA (AP) — Trayvon Martin’s supporters pack churches, swarm rallies and wear hooded sweat shirts in solidarity while friends and family of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed teen to death, remain largely out of sight. The few who have defended Zimmerman have done so reluctantly, most fearing public backlash.
Zimmerman, 28, has gone into hiding. His version of what happened on the rainy night of Feb. 26 has only trickled out from police and his attorney. Zimmerman said he was pursuing the 17-year-old Martin because Martin was acting suspiciously. He said he lost sight of the teenager and Martin attacked him as he headed back to his sport utility vehicle.
Zimmerman told police he fired in self-defense and police did not arrest him, touching off widespread public outrage and protests across the country.
Martin’s supporters believe race played a role in the shooting. Martin was black; Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Hispanic.
“The family has had death threats, the father and mother, George has had death threats. Anything related to George is a target,” said Miguel Meza, who identified himself as Zimmerman’s cousin.
George Hall, a retired Presbyterian minister, said he was Zimmerman’s neighbor for 20 years in Manassas, Va., until about 2001. Hall said Zimmerman and his brother attended church, and he wrote a recommendation for Zimmerman for a police academy in 2004.
“Their parents taught them to treat everybody with respect. I’m tired of hearing about this race thing,” Hall said. “It could be an element in it … but I never would have thought of him as being a racist. His father was in the Army and was a white American and his mother was Peruvian. That makes him 50 percent Peruvian. A lot of stuff I hear, it irks me because people are drawing their own conclusions with very little evidence.”
Meza spoke only briefly over the telephone to a reporter from The Associated Press. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had talked to Zimmerman since the shooting, but he said other relatives are afraid to comment publicly, even though they think he is being treated unfairly.
“The media has been quick to demonize George, but Trayvon Martin was no angelic boy walking,” Meza said.
Zimmerman’s attorney, Craig Sonner, has said in more than one interview that his client’s nose was broken during the fight with Martin.
The Orlando Sentinel, citing anonymous sources, has reported that Martin grabbed Zimmerman’s head and banged it several times against the sidewalk. A statement from Sanford police said the newspaper’s story was “consistent” with evidence turned over to prosecutors.
Sonner said the gash on the back of Zimmerman’s head probably was serious enough for stitches, but he waited too long for treatment so the wound was already healing.
Zimmerman said he began crying for help; Martin’s family thinks it was their son who was crying out. Witness accounts differ and 911 tapes in which the voices are heard are not clear.
Martin was at least 6 feet tall, several inches taller than the 5-foot-9 Zimmerman. Meza said Martin was not the child he appears to be in photos flashed across television and newspapers.
“George was in a fight for his life,” Meza said.
Martin’s supporters, including a host of outspoken celebrities and civil rights leaders who have appeared on television for the past two weeks, don’t believe Zimmerman’s story. They want him arrested and prosecuted, and his parents think their son is being painted in a negative light by a police department leaking information to the news media.
The teenager was suspended from school three times this year. In October, he wrote obscene graffiti on a door at his high school. During a search of his backpack, campus security officers found 12 pieces of jewelry, a watch and a screwdriver that they thought could be used as a burglary tool, according to a school police report obtained by the Miami Herald.
When campus security confronted Martin, he told them a friend had given him the jewelry, but he wouldn’t give a name. The Miami-Dade Police Department said Tuesday the jewelry could not be tied to any reported thefts.
Martin had previously been suspended for excessive absences and tardiness and, at the time of his death, was serving a 10-day suspension after school officials found an empty plastic bag with marijuana traces in his backpack.
His parents spent Tuesday at a forum organized by Congress on racial profiling and hate crimes. They spoke briefly before a Democrats-only congressional panel as cameras clicked noisily in front of them.
“Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon is your son,” Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, told the panel. “A lot of people can relate to our situation and it breaks their heart like it breaks our heart.”
Eric Gross, who was Zimmerman’s classmate in high school in Virginia, said the shooting was surprising because he remembered Zimmerman as a “good guy.”
“We had a couple classes together. He was just fun-going, got along with everybody that was in our classes,” Gross said.
Another of Zimmerman’s friends said Zimmerman would tell the teen’s parents he’s “very, very sorry” if he could.
Speaking Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Joe Oliver said Zimmerman is not a racist and has virtually lost his own life since the shooting.
“This is a guy who thought he was doing the right thing at the time, and it’s turned out horribly wrong,” said Oliver, one of the few blacks to come forward in support of Zimmerman.
Victor Rodriguez, who lives in Zimmerman’s neighborhood, said he often saw him walking around, but he didn’t know if that was part of his patrol. Now, he’s not sure what to think.
“It makes you feel a little bit safe but knowing what happened and everything, it’s kind of like confusing in a way. We don’t want people to be in the neighborhood. You have kids running around. You don’t want robberies going down,” Rodriguez said.
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