Outrage over the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has spread… (Seth Wenig/AP )
Reporting from Sanford, Fla. —
George Zimmerman, whose fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager has sparked nationwide protests over alleged racial profiling, had thought the entire incident would "blow over," a friend said Sunday. Instead, Zimmerman is hiding amid death threats and demands for his arrest.
Joe Oliver told ABC News that he had never seen any indication Zimmerman, 28, whom he has known for about a decade, is racist. Oliver also said that in the days immediately after the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who is black, he heard that Zimmerman "couldn't stop crying."
Zimmerman, who is of Latino and white heritage, has said he fired at Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman had encountered Martin on Feb. 26 as the teenager was walking through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., where Zimmerman is a neighborhood watch volunteer. The fiance of Martin's father lives in the complex, and Martin had been returning to her home after buying candy and a drink at a nearby convenience store.
"It's just starting to sink in" to Zimmerman how big the controversy over the shooting has become, Oliver said. "Up until this point, because he was there and he knows what happened ... he has been very confident -- naively -- that this would all blow over."
Among other things, the shooting has forced the Sanford police chief, Bill Lee Jr., to temporarily leave his post while the investigation continues. It has also focused attention on Florida's so-called stand your ground law, which permits people to use deadly force if they feel threatened. Lee has said that because of the law, which took effect in Florida in 2005, police could not arrest Zimmerman.
Martin's parents and supporters, however, say evidence from witnesses who called 911 the night of the shooting indicate that Zimmerman followed Martin because he was black. They've alleged that racism is at the root of both the teen's shooting and the decision not to arrest Zimmerman.
With Monday marking one month since the shooting, city officials in Sanford -- a lakefront city of 55,000 people about 20 miles from Orlando -- were preparing for thousands to attend the regularly scheduled City Commission meeting Monday evening. The meeting site has been shifted from City Hall to the Civic Center to accommodate crowds, and it will be devoted to discussion of the Martin case.
Zimmerman has dropped from sight since the shooting, but in recent days, a lawyer who has described himself as Zimmerman's legal advisor has begun speaking out in defense of Zimmerman. Oliver was the latest in a small group of friends who have come forward to speak up for the shooter.
The lawyer, Craig Sonner, has said that Zimmerman had a history of mentoring young blacks, had friends of all races and shows no indication of being a racist. Sonner also said Zimmerman had no choice but to go into hiding during increasingly angry demands that he be arrested.
The latest demand came from the New Black Panther Party, which on Saturday offered a $10,000 reward for Zimmerman's capture. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," New Black Panther leader Mikhail Muhammad said when asked whether the offer could incite violence, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
At rallies held in solidarity with Martin's family, people have sold T-shirts featuring pictures of Zimmerman below a large "WANTED" sign. And Sonner said he and Zimmerman have received death threats.
"Is George a racist? The answer is no, absolutely not," Sonner told the Associated Press. He said Zimmerman's friends "only have good things to say about him" but that many were afraid to come forward because they feared being targeted for supporting Zimmerman.
That did not deter Oliver, who said he understood why Zimmerman was fearful. "Wouldn't you be?" he said. "There's someone ... who put a $10,000 bounty on his head."
On Sunday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson became the latest activist to come to central Florida to speak about the case. Jackson delivered a sermon at a Baptist church in Eatonville, about 20 miles from Sanford, where he urged people to ensure the case sparked a movement for social change.