ORLANDO, Fla.–“Murderer,” one e-mail’s subject line said.
“Please shoot yourself, you racist piece of sh-t,” read the body of another e-mail. “You killed an unarmed teen that you stalked.”
And several dictated the same, succinct line: “Hope you die in prison.”
These venom-drenched words are just a smattering of at least 400 e-mails and letters, all sent to George Zimmerman over the past 10 months.
Zimmerman, 29, has yet to read the vast majority of these letters; they are retained by his legal counsel in Orlando. His attorneys provided them exclusively to CNN, omitting the senders’ names to protect their identities.
The majority are either neutral or compassionate, offering moral support and financial contributions to help with Zimmerman’s mounting bills. The supportive letters often blame the media for his woes and offer encouragement for the road ahead.
Some applaud his lawsuit against NBC over the altering the recording of his police call, allegedly to “create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain.”
Other missives–many packed with vitriol and anger–provide a glimpse into the emotion that overcame the nation when Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a black teen, in Sanford, Florida, exactly one year ago.
Like the friendly letters, there are recurring themes: condemnation of Zimmerman’s conduct that night, mocking the website he established to collect donations for the legal defense and even ridiculing the physical appearances of him and his wife, Shellie.
Zimmerman is vilified as a predator in these letters, while Martin is portrayed as a “baby” or “child. Dozens are riddled with profanity and crude anatomical references.
The outrage erupted when Sanford police at first declined to make an arrest in the shooting. The fury mushroomed as national networks picked up the story.
At first, it seemed fairly black and white: Trayvon, an unarmed 17-year-old, was walking to the home of his father’s fiancee after a trip to the store for candy and tea when Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman, saw him and called Sanford police’s nonemergency line.
Zimmerman described Martin as a “suspicious guy.” The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow the teen — whether he did is still in dispute — but the two later encountered each other. Zimmerman fired his weapon, and a bullet to Martin’s chest ended the youngster’s life.
Police would later explain that the dispatcher’s imperative was “not a lawful order that Mr. Zimmerman would be required to follow.”
It would turn out to be a more complicated incident altogether, one whose details have yet to emerge completely. Many of the letters to Zimmerman indicate a rush to judgment that many in the nation seemed to embrace in the weeks after the shooting.
“Bottom line is u followed him and got out of your car so it’s 100% your fault,” one sender alleged.
“You shouldn’t have continued to pursue him after you were clearly told by the emergency operator to stop following him,” another said.
Despite his myriad detractors, Zimmerman had his supporters as well, and they seemed to sympathize with the plight of a man so concerned about neighborhood break-ins that he bought a gun and dog and donned the mantle of neighborhood watchman.
“His character proves he is a good person and put in charge of trying to keep homes safe,” one of his supporters said in a handwritten letter.
Though Zimmerman is half Hispanic and grew up in a mixed-race family, many of his opponents believed his actions were the product of racial profiling, while others felt the incident was being used to stoke racial tensions. Those sentiments, too, are apparent in the letters.
“You are a RACIST BASTARD, who targeted an innocent Black kid, simply because he was Black,” one note read.
“You murder a child because of the color of his skin,” said another.
In contrast, others saw the racial controversy as a ginned-up conspiracy to condemn Zimmerman and made references to “the race-baiting media” and “threats by the black community and their leaders.”
“Black people take every opportunity to claim they’ve been wronged,” said one letter, while another encouraged Zimmerman to keep his head high: “Don’t let the damn blacks hold you back.”
Much of the correspondence Zimmerman received traces the curves of the evolving narrative since February 26, 2012, as previously obscured facts were brought to light and Zimmerman began to tell his side of the story.
For instance, a friend who was on the phone with Martin at the time told authorities the teen told her he was being followed. Zimmerman has since said he wasn’t pursuing Martin. Rather, he was trying to determine a good street address to give to police.
Another example is the shooting itself. While Zimmerman’s opponents say he had no cause to shoot Martin, 911 calls indicate there was a struggle that was loud enough to alert neighbors in the townhome community.
Someone is heard shouting for help–accounts vary as to who–then, on one of the calls, a gunshot is heard.
Zimmerman said it was Martin who attacked him, decking him with a punch to the nose before slamming his head repeatedly into the sidewalk. The first images released of Zimmerman–from a grainy surveillance video–didn’t seem to support the assertion. He seemed clean, uninjured even, many said.
But color photos released later–one of the back of Zimmerman’s skull streaked in blood and another showing Zimmerman’s swollen nose, blood smeared across his mustache and lip–raised the possibility he may have been attacked.
“If people claim you attacked and held him down and shot him you wouldn’t be injured but you are. That proves to me your story makes more sense,” read an e-mail from one supporter.
Other observers were not convinced.
“Your bloody nose picture only shows that Martin was fighting for his life against an armed man,” a retired Florida police officer wrote.
Claiming self-defense, Zimmerman wasn’t arrested immediately. That decision by local police prompted many protests. Thousands rallied and walked out of schools.
A specially appointed prosecutor decided to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder in April, more than six weeks after the shooting, and the Sanford city manager axed Police Chief Bill Lee in June.
Now, his defense team is faced with the task of convincing Seminole County Judge Debra Nelson that Zimmerman feared for his life. Many letters to Zimmerman indicate there are plenty of people who have already made up their minds.
“I believe you did what you needed to do I don’t don’t (sic) think you were wrong you were trying to protect yourself,” read an e-mail.”
“The fact is that Trayvon physically assaulted another human being, and in a civilized society, you aren’t allowed to do that,” said another supporter.
Other letters, however, cast Zimmerman as a coward who shot a teen after picking a fight with him.
“You shot trayvon when you were losing to (sic) fight that you started!” one such e-mail chastised Zimmerman.
It continued, “Think about your nieces and nephews what if they were being followed by a strange male and turned to confront them, got in a fight with them got killed and the man said it was self-defense. May God bless your soul, if you can’t see what you did was wrong.”
Nelson will decide in April whether Zimmerman can avoid prosecution during an immunity hearing dealing with Florida’s now-controversial stand-your-ground law.
The law states that people can use deadly force to defend themselves if they believe they are threatened with death or serious bodily harm. Though Martin’s supporters question how the law can be invoked under the circumstances in this case, there are those who believe the neighborhood watchman handled himself appropriately.
“Thank you for standing your ground,” one note said.
If Nelson agrees with the stand-your-ground claim, Zimmerman’s scheduled June trial will be called off. If she rules against it, the trial will proceed.
While many people have steadfast opinions about what happened the night Martin was killed, there are those who feel the situation is still unclear.
“I don’t know what actually happened between the two of them. In my ‘gut,’ I feel it was probably a tragic accident and that they were both in the wrong place at the wrong time,” read a handwritten letter.
Another stated, “I do not think that you are a racist, just a loose cannon from the 19th century. … I do not hate you or like you, I am pretty much neutral.”
If Nelson sends the case to trial, the next stage will be jury selection. If these last few letters are any indication, there may still be at least a few impartial onlookers amid a sea of passionate opinions.
Vivian Kuo | CNN