Zimmerman apologizes for shooting unarmed youth; gets US$150,000 bail


By Curt Anderson and Mike Schneider ,AP

SANFORD, Florida — A routine bail hearing for a man suspected of killing a black teenager took a surprising turn into remorse and explanation Friday when the neighborhood watch volunteer got on the witness stand and told the victim’s parents: “I am sorry for the loss of your son.”

“I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. I did not know if he was armed or not,” George Zimmerman said, marking the first time he has spoken publicly about the Feb. 26 shooting of the unarmed black 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin.

The case has become a national sensation because police waited some 44 days before detaining the watch volunteer, George Zimmerman.

Civil rights leaders said if the black teenager had been white, Zimmerman would have been arrested and charged the night of the shooting. Zimmerman’s father is white, and his mother is Hispanic of Peruvian descent.

Friday’s hearing wrapped up with a judge ruling Zimmerman can be released from jail on US$150,000 bail while he awaits trial on second-degree murder charges. He could be out within days and may be allowed to live outside Florida for his own safety once arrangements are made to monitor him electronically.

Defendants often testify about their financial assets at bail hearings, but it is highly unusual for them to address the charges, and rarer still to apologize.

An attorney for Trayvon Martin’s parents, who were in the courtroom when Zimmerman spoke, spurned the apology. The parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, had no comment as they left.

“This was the most disingenuous and unfair thing I’ve seen,” said attorney Natalie Jackson. “This was the most unmeaningful apology.”

In a measure of how volatile the case has become, Zimmerman appeared to be wearing a bulletproof vest under his suit and tie, and his parents and wife testified via telephone because of fears for their safety.

In agreeing to let Zimmerman out on bail, Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester said he cannot have any guns and must observe a 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew. Zimmerman also surrendered his passport.

Zimmerman will need to put up 10 percent, or US$15,000, to make bail. O’Mara said he expects the family to come up with the amount. Zimmerman’s father has indicated he may take out a second mortgage.

Bail is not unheard of in second-degree murder cases, and legal experts had predicted it would be granted for Zimmerman because of his ties to the community, because he turned himself in after he was charged last week, and because he has never been convicted of a serious crime.

Prosecutors had asked for US$1 million bail, citing two previous scrapes Zimmerman had with the law, neither of which resulted in charges. In 2005, he had to take anger management courses after he was accused of attacking an undercover officer who was trying to arrest Zimmerman’s friend. In another incident, a girlfriend accused him of attacking her.

The hearing provided a few glimpses of the strengths — and weaknesses — in the case being built by the prosecution.

In taking the stand, Zimmerman opened himself up to questions from a prosecutor, who grilled him on whether he made an apology to police on the night of the shooting, and why he waited so long to express remorse to Martin’s parents.

Zimmerman said he told police he felt sorry for the parents. He also said he didn’t say anything to them sooner because his former attorneys told him not to.

As part of the bail hearing, Zimmerman’s family testified that he wouldn’t flee if released and would be no threat to the community.

“He is absolutely not a violent person,” said his wife, Shellie Zimmerman.