Sanford: Neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman apologised to the family of Trayvon Martin on Friday, stunning a rapt courtroom and a national television audience at a hearing in which the judge granted Zimmerman USD 150,000 bail on a charge of second-degree murder in the death of the unarmed black teenager.
Zimmerman`s surprise appearance on the witness stand added an unexpected twist to a saga that has riveted the country, provoked civil rights protests nationwide and fired a national debate over guns, self-defence laws and race in America.
"I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son," Zimmerman, 28, told Martin`s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, briefly looking toward them in the gallery.
"I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. And I did not know if he was armed or not," Zimmerman, dressed in a suit and tie with shackles around his waist and wrists, said in his first public remarks on a shooting that has topped the news for weeks.
The parents of Martin, 17, were outraged Zimmerman was allowed to make what they considered a self-serving apology meant only to improve his chances of making bail, their lawyer said, calling the apology too late to be genuine.
Zimmerman`s release from jail could take days while his family raises cash and prosecutors and defence lawyers work out an agreement to protect his privacy and safety. Prosecutors must also consider a defence request allowing him to leave the state.
Trayvon Martin`s parents, who divorced in 1999, left the court stone-faced with arms locked, declining to answer questions from reporters.
"They are devastated" that Zimmerman might soon be free on bail, attorney Benjamin Crump told reporters, adding that Tracy Martin had tears in his eyes throughout the hearing.
"And it was devastating that he got to give a self-serving apology to help him get a bond," Crump said of Zimmerman. "They (the parents) were very outraged at that."
Though dramatic, Zimmerman`s testimony could be used by prosecutors later in the case to impeach his credibility should they discover contradictions with previous statements to police.
Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda was limited to the apology in his cross-examination of Zimmerman and prohibited from delving into the facts of the case. But he made a point of locking Zimmerman into his statement that he also told police he "felt sorry for the family" about the death of Trayvon.
Zimmerman also testified he never changed his story in three separate statements to police.
Moments later, Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr set bail at USD 150,000. Zimmerman`s defence lawyer had requested bail of no more than USD 15,000 and prosecutors, who had opposed his release, suggested bail of USD 1 million.
The judge set a number of conditions including electronic monitoring he said would prevent Zimmerman from being released on Friday. Zimmerman is also barred from further contact with the Martin family and cannot possess a gun or drink alcohol.
His release would be a "several day process”, said defence attorney Mark O`Mara.
Earlier in the hearing, Zimmerman`s wife, father and mother told the court Zimmerman was not a violent person and they would help ensure he does not flee if released on bail.
The three were allowed to testify by telephone from outside the court to protect their privacy in the face of hate mail and the intense emotions the case has generated.
"I`ve never known him to be violent at all, unless he was provoked, and then he would turn the other cheek," father Robert Zimmerman testified under defence questioning.
Zimmerman, a white and Hispanic neighbourhood watch volunteer, shot and killed the unarmed Martin in what he said was self-defence following a confrontation that occurred as Martin was returning to his father`s house in the gated community after buying candy from a convenience store.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, citing Florida`s "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force when they believe they are in danger of getting killed or suffering great bodily harm.
The lack of an arrest led thousands to march in rallies in Sanford and around the nation to demand Zimmerman`s arrest and criticise investigators. The public outrage forced the Sanford police chief and regularly assigned prosecutor to step aside.
Governor Rick Scott appointed Angela Corey as special prosecutor, and Corey charged Zimmerman on April 11.