By Daniel Trotta
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - George Zimmerman cried for days in remorse after shooting dead a black Florida teenager, a family friend of Zimmerman said on Sunday, offering a sympathetic portrayal of the man at the focal point of a national uproar.
Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, shot Trayvon Martin, 17, in what he said was self defense during an altercation in the gated community Zimmerman was watching on February 26 in Sanford, Florida. After barely going noticed for weeks, the case has triggered protests and renewed a national discussion about race.
"He couldn't stop crying. He's a caring human being," Joe Oliver, 53, a former television news reporter and anchor in Orlando who has known Zimmerman for several years, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"I mean, he took a man's life and he has no idea what to do about it. He's extremely remorseful about it," Oliver said, relating stories told to his mother-in-law, a close friend of Zimmerman's wife.
Oliver's account counters the withering criticism Zimmerman has sustained from demonstrators across the country who have demanded his arrest and accused him of racial bias in targeting Martin. Celebrities have taken up the cause of justice for Trayvon, and President Barack Obama said "all of us have to do some soul-searching" as a result of the tragedy.
"I'm a black male and all that I know is that George has never given me any reason whatsoever to believe he has anything against people of color," Oliver said.
Sanford police did not arrest Zimmerman, saying the evidence could not disprove his account of self-defense, though the case is under review by a state special prosecutor and the U.S. Justice Department.
Zimmerman dropped out of public view shortly after the shooting and his whereabouts were unknown. The New Black Panther Party, an African American organization taking its name from the radical group of the 1960s, has placed a $10,000 bounty on Zimmerman.
"All these people who are threatening George, what makes them any better than the person they think he is?" Oliver said. "You've got all these people wanting to lynch the man and they don't know the whole story. There are huge gaps that are being filled in and interpreted without evidence."
Oliver tried to reach Zimmerman after the shooting but he had not spoken with him until Saturday in a conversation arranged by Zimmerman's lawyer.
As a black man, he said he understands how minorities are often unfairly treated, but he believed Zimmerman was simply doing his job by growing suspicious over an unfamiliar person walking through a neighborhood that had suffered some break-ins. Martin lived in Miami but was with his father on a visit to his father's fiancée's home inside the gated community.
"I understand how they're able to leap to the conclusion. You have a dead teenager. This guy is white so it must be a hate crime. There's going to be evidence to come out that basically will justify George's concern," Oliver said.
"He (Zimmerman) confirmed for me that he was not the aggressor. But I did not go into details as to how it got to that aggressive point," Oliver said.
At one point Oliver became choked up with emotion talking about his friend but said he was coming forward freely even though it may expose him to reprisals.
"I just have to do what's right, not just for my friend but for everyone involved," Oliver said. "His mother in law lost her job for this. He's in hiding. His mother in law can't see her own daughter because she fears for their lives."