By Daniel Trotta
ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Florida (Reuters) - The lawyer representing the man who shot dead a black Florida teenager said the public image of his client is almost completely wrong and that he acted out of self-defense, not racial bigotry.
Craig Sonner, a previously little known defense lawyer from Altamonte Springs, Florida, suddenly finds himself thrust into the spotlight as the attorney representing George Zimmerman, who remains free and uncharged over the incident in the town of Sanford, just north of Orlando.
The case has galvanized the nation and prompted rallies protesting the failure of police to arrest Zimmerman and, more broadly, a pattern of racial discrimination that black leaders cite in Sanford and elsewhere in the country.
Martin, 17 and unarmed, was shot dead on February 26 after Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch captain, believed the young man walking through the gated community in a "hoodie" hooded sweatshirt looked suspicious. Zimmerman followed him and an altercation ensued.
"This was not a racially motivated situation," Sonner told Reuters on Saturday from his law office, which has attracted a parade of television satellite trucks since it became public on Friday that he was representing Zimmerman.
"Actually George Zimmerman was a mentor to a single mother with a 14 year old son and a 13 year old daughter and she had nothing but good things to say about his involvement with them, and also helping in raising money for their African American church," Sonner said.
The lawyer, who is handling his first high-profile media case, said he has represented Zimmerman for a "couple of weeks" but has yet to meet his client face-to-face because it would risk revealing his whereabouts. Zimmerman has disappeared from public view since the shooting gained national media attention in early March.
"Look out in the driveway," Sonner said, referring to the TV trucks.
Sonner declined to discuss most details of the case to protect his client, who is under investigation by a state special prosecutor, the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department.
But he did affirm a police report that Zimmerman suffered a bloody nose and a cut on the back of his head. Sanford police said they found no evidence to contradict Zimmerman's story of self defense, supported in part by the injuries.
Sonner said Martin punched Zimmerman in the nose and Zimmerman hit the back of his head on the ground upon falling backward.
The race issue was inflamed by audio tapes of Zimmerman speaking to an emergency operator in which he uttered what his critics believe was a racial slur while in pursuit of Martin. The unclear audio is open to interpretation but if prosecutors believe they can convince a jury that Zimmerman used the offending words he could be prosecuted for a hate crime.
"Based on talking with George and his friends, I don't believe he made racial slurs. He was not known for talking that way," Sonner said.
Though Sonner believes public sentiment is wrong, he understands why emotions are running high.
"There's a lot of grief. I mean, the loss of a child," he said. "The amount of grief the Martin family is experiencing is incredible. But based on the injuries that have been released and that George sustained, and his statements, he believes he was acting in self defense."
(Editing by Vicki Allen)