Supporters of an unarmed black U.S. teen who was shot to death pack churches, swarm rallies and wear hooded sweatshirts in solidarity, while friends and family of Trayvon Martin’s shooter remain largely out of sight. The few who have defended neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman have done so reluctantly, most fearing public backlash.
Zimmerman, 28, has gone into hiding. His version of what happened in Florida on the rainy night of Feb. 26 has only trickled out from police and his attorney. Zimmerman said he was following the 17-year-old Martin because he was acting suspicious. He said he lost sight of the teenager and Martin attacked him as he headed back to his sport utility vehicle.
Zimmerman told police he fired in self-defense and has not been charged, touching off widespread public outrage and protests across the country.
WATCH ‘THE LAST WORD’ INTERVIEW WITH ZIMMERMAN FRIEND JOE OLIVER:
[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”46875546″ id=”msnbc35213b”]
Martin’s supporters believe race played a role in the shooting. Martin was black; Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Hispanic.
“The family has had death threats, the father and mother, George has had death threats. Anything related to George is a target,” said Miguel Meza, who identified himself as Zimmerman’s cousin.
George Hall, a retired Presbyterian minister, said he was Zimmerman’s neighbor for 20 years in Virginia until about 2001. Hall said Zimmerman and his brother attended church, and he wrote a recommendation for Zimmerman for a police academy in 2004.
“Their parents taught them to treat everybody with respect. I’m tired of hearing about this race thing. It could be an element in it … but I never would have thought of him as being a racist,” Hall said. “His father was in the Army and was a white American and his mother was Peruvian. That makes him 50 percent Peruvian. A lot of stuff I hear, it irks me because people are drawing their own conclusions with very little evidence.”
Meza spoke only briefly to an Associated Press reporter over the phone. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had talked to Zimmerman since the shooting, but he said other relatives are afraid to comment publicly, even though they think he is being treated unfairly.
“The media has been quick to demonize George, but Trayvon Martin was no angelic boy walking,” Meza said.
Zimmerman’s attorney, Craig Sonner, has said that his client’s nose was broken during the fight with Martin.
The Orlando Sentinel has reported that Martin grabbed Zimmerman’s head and banged it several times against the sidewalk. Sonner said the gash on the back of Zimmerman’s head probably was serious enough for stitches, but he waited too long for treatment, so the wound was already healing.
Zimmerman said he began crying for help; Martin’s family thinks it was their son who was crying out. Witness accounts differ, and emergency call tapes in which the voices are heard are not clear. A statement from Sanford police said the newspaper’s story was “consistent” with evidence turned over to prosecutors.
Meza said Martin was not the child he appears to be in photos flashed across television and newspapers.
“George was in a fight for his life,” Meza said.
Martin’s supporters, which include a host of outspoken celebrities and civil rights leaders, don’t believe Zimmerman’s story. They want him arrested and prosecuted, and his parents think their son is being painted in a negative light by a police department leaking information to the media.
The teenager was suspended from school three times this year. In October, he wrote obscene graffiti on a door at his high school. During a search of his backpack, campus security officers found 12 pieces of jewelry, a watch and a screwdriver that they thought could be used as a burglary tool, according to a school police report obtained by the Miami Herald.
Martin had previously been suspended for excessive absences and tardiness and, at the time of his death, was serving a 10-day suspension after school officials found an empty plastic bag with marijuana traces in his backpack.
His parents spent Tuesday at a forum organized by Congress on racial profiling and hate crimes. They spoke briefly before a Democrats-only congressional panel as cameras clicked noisily in front of them.
“Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon is your son,” Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, told the panel. “A lot of people can relate to our situation, and it breaks their heart like it breaks our heart.”
Eric Gross, who was Zimmerman’s classmate in Virginia, said the shooting was surprising because he remembered Zimmerman as “good guy.”
Another of Zimmerman’s friends has said Zimmerman would tell the teen’s parents he’s “very, very sorry” if he could.
Speaking Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Joe Oliver said Zimmerman is not a racist and has virtually lost his own life since the shooting.
“This is a guy who thought he was doing the right thing at the time, and it’s turned out horribly wrong,” said Oliver, one of the few blacks to come forward in support of Zimmerman.
Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi. Hutchinson reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.