By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - After his acquittal on murder charges for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman may go to law school to help people wrongly accused of crimes like himself, close friends told Reuters on Sunday.
The 29-year old was found not guilty late Saturday for shooting the unarmed black teenager in a case that sparked a national debate on race and gun laws. One of his first calls was to defense witness John Donnelly and his wife Leanne Benjamin.
They got to know Zimmerman in 2004 when he and a black friend opened up an insurance office in a Florida building where Benjamin worked. They grew close and the couple spent time with him during the trial.
Over dinner with Zimmerman recently, Benjamin said he told them he would like to go to law school.
"I'd like to help other people like me," she quoted him as telling them.
Zimmerman, an insurance investigator, attended community college and was a credit shy of an associate's degree in criminal justice but was kicked out of school because he posed a danger to the campus, according to family sources.
"Everybody said he was a cop-wannabe but he's interested in law," Benjamin said. "He sees it as a potential path forward to help other people like himself."
Zimmerman's defense attorney Mark O'Mara agreed.
"He wanted to be a cop for awhile, but he's talked about going to law school," O'Mara told Reuters on Sunday.
"He has a real interest in the law and ... prosecuting appropriately - not like what he got - is something he's very interested in. I will not be surprised if he ends up in criminal law," O'Mara said. "His dad was a judge, and he wants to be a prosecutor or a lawyer."
Experience shows that re-building life after a major trial may prove difficult, even for those acquitted of headline-making crimes.
Casey Anthony, the young Orlando mother acquitted in 2011 of killing her 3-year-old daughter Caylee, remains hidden and unemployed while her lawyers fight civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages from her.
Former NFL star O.J. Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of killing his wife and an acquaintance, but his life fell apart. He lost a $33 million wrongful death civil suit in 1997, moved to Florida where he was arrested and eventually sent to prison in 2008 for up to 33 years for robbery and kidnapping.
THREATS TO HIS LIFE
Even O'Mara and Zimmerman's brother, Robert, admitted his life would never be the same after the trial, which has forced him to go out in disguise and wear bullet proof vests because of threats to his life.
Donnelly told Reuters that Zimmerman was hurt very deeply by prosecutors' portrayals of him as a racist vigilante who targeted and pursued Martin simply because he was black.
"The person they are talking about is somebody completely different," Donnelly quoted Zimmerman as telling him recently. "Sometimes I have to go look at a mirror. They are talking about a totally different human being. They are talking about a racist. I'm not a racist."
He said Zimmerman was anything but.
"He's been mentoring young black kids for years, he launched a campaign to help a homeless black man who was beaten up by a white kid, and he still just can't believe all the things that have been said about him in the media."
Other friends of Zimmerman who spoke exclusively to Reuters remain angry at what he has endured since the shooting.
"I knew the man was innocent the whole time,'' said Jorge Rodriguez. "He called me yesterday to thank me ... for believing in him. He was just so relieved."
Rodriguez is deeply frustrated by civil rights activists like Al Sharpton, who he feels pressured prosecutors into charging Zimmerman with a crime he didn't commit.
"Everybody asked for justice, and they got it," Rodriguez said. "Everybody asked for George to be arrested, and they got it. Everybody asked for George to be tried, and they got it. Everybody asked for a fair trial, and they got it."
He dismissed criticism of the prosecution, the six female jurors and calls by civil rights groups for a federal civil rights investigation. The Martin family is also considering a wrongful death civil suit.
"Now can't we leave George Zimmerman alone?", Rodriguez said. "It was nothing about racism. It was about the community being robbed and broken into, and one man stood up. The state should be giving this man an award, and instead they took him to trial."
(Additional reporting by Barbara Liston in Sanford; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou, Bernard Orr)