Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager whose killing unleashed furious debate across the US over racial profiling, self-defense and equal justice.
But the verdict angered large sections of Americans who marched in US cities throughout Saturday night, with reports of sporadic acts of violence.
Spontaneous marches of varying sizes erupted in cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Zimmerman, 29, blinked and barely smiled when the verdict was announced late on Saturday night. He could have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter. But the jury of six women, all but one of them White, reached a verdict of not guilty.
Martin’s mother and father were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read; supporters of his family who had gathered outside yelled “No! No!” upon learning of the not-guilty verdict.
The teen’s father, Tracy, reacted on Twitter: “Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY.”
Trayvon Martin’s brother, Jahvaris Fulton, said simply: “Et tu America?” - a reference to the Latin phrase “Et tu, Brute?”, known as an expression of betrayal.
The jurors considered nearly three weeks of often wildly conflicting testimony over who was the aggressor on the rainy night the 17-year-old was shot while walking through the gated townhouse community where he was staying and where Zimmerman lived. None of the witnesses who were called had a clear view of their encounter.
Defense attorneys said the case was classic self-defense, claiming Martin knocked Zimmerman down and was slamming the older man’s head against the concrete sidewalk when Zimmerman fired his gun.
The trial has riveted the nation for weeks, and emotions came to a boiling point as news of the verdict spread.
Prominent rights activists like Jesse Jackson appealed for calm.
“Avoid violence, it will lead to more tragedies. Find a way for self construction not deconstruction in this time of despair,” he wrote on Twitter.
Martin’s parents have long called for non-violent demonstrations, quoting civil rights icon Martin Luther King and the Bible.
Several hundred demonstrators marched peacefully amid a heavy police presence in downtown San Francisco soon after the verdict. Many carried signs with slogans such as “The people say guilty”.
Hours later angry protesters marching through Oakland -- just across the bay from San Francisco -- spray-painted cars and smashed windows, helicopter video footage posted by the Oakland Tribune showed. One vandalized vehicle was a police cruiser.
In Chicago, to the cry of “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” a crowd of activists held a noisy downtown rally, the Chicago Tribune reported, while protesters gathered at Times Square in New York City to vent their anger.
Los Angeles police declared a “citywide tactical alert” when some 200 demonstrators gathered at a park in a historical Black neighbourhood to demonstrate, but police later told local media that it was as a precaution, and that there had been no acts of violence.
In Washington, dozens of mostly African-American youths marched chanting slogans in a city neighborhood. They were followed closely by patrol vehicles, an AFP journalist reported.
A crowd of several hundred gathered all day Saturday outside the courthouse in Sanford, Florida -- and many were outraged when the verdict was read.
“It’s the end of our justice system,” said Ashton Summer, a 20 year-old Puerto Rican. “Justice is not equal for everyone”.
Rights activist Al Sharpton posted a statement on Facebook describing Zimmerman’s acquittal as “a slap in the face to the American people”.
“We intend to ask the Department of Justice to move forward as they did in the Rodney King case and we will closely monitor the civil case against Mr Zimmerman,” said Sharpton.
Rodney King was an African-American man who was beaten by Los Angeles police following a car chase in April 1991. The beating was videotaped and aired on television, sparking widespread outrage.
Days of violent rioting and looting broke out in Los Angeles when the police officers involved in the beating were acquitted in April 1992.