By James Novogrod, Tom Winter and Tracy Connor, NBC News
A Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman on Saturday night in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
The verdict, from a jury of six women who deliberated over two days, was announced at 10 p.m. ET. Jurors also had the option of convicting him of second-degree murder or of the lesser crime of manslaughter.
In the courtroom, Zimmerman’s family held hands across a row and cried.
John Guy, one of the prosecutors, told reporters: “We have from the beginning just prayed for the truth to come out and for peace to be the result, and that continues to be our prayers, and we believe they have been answered.”
About four hours earlier, the jurors had sent a note asking for clarification on their instructions regarding the manslaughter charge. Judge Debra Nelson, after consulting with both sides, returned a note asking them to be more specific.
Zimmerman, 29, said he was acting in self-defense when he shot the unarmed Martin, 17, in the chest during an altercation in a gated community of Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012.
He was not charged for 44 tumultuous days in which the case generated large protests in several cities, turned a hooded sweatshirt like the one Martin wore into a symbol of solidarity, and drew the attention of President Obama, who said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
As debate over race, guns and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law swirled, a special prosecutor appointed by the governor announced April 11, 2012 that Zimmerman was being charged with second-degree murder – a move that his supporters said was meant to quell the public outcry.
Zimmerman pleaded not guilty throughout the case to the charges against him.
When the trial unfolded a year later, prosecutors argued the volunteer neighborhood watchman was a wannabe cop who “profiled” Martin as the teen walked back from buying Skittles at a 7-Eleven, and then followed him against the advice of the police dispatcher he called to report a suspicious person.
“That child had every right to be where he was,” Guy said in a closing argument.
“That child had every right to do what he was doing, walking home. That child had every right to be afraid of a strange man following him, first in his car and then on foot. And did that child not have the right to defend himself from that strange man?”
The defense told jurors that Zimmerman was just doing his civic duty when he was ambushed by Martin, punched in the face and slammed repeatedly into concrete before he fired a single shot that pierced the teen’s heart.
“That’s cement. That is a sidewalk. And that is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles trying to get home,” O’Mara said.
“The suggestion by the state that that’s not a weapon, that that can’t hurt somebody, that that can’t cause great bodily injury … is disgusting.”
Over the course of testimony, 56 witnesses took the stand, including Martin’s and Zimmerman’s parents, who disagreed about who was heard yelling for help in the background of a 911 call made by a resident of the Retreat at Twin Lakes during the fatal confrontation.
Zimmerman did not testify, but his call to the non-emergency police line, his statements to investigators and even a TV interview were part of the evidence jurors could consider. The panel was also given photos of Zimmerman’s injuries and pictures of Martin’s body at the scene and at the morgue.
Well aware of the passions surrounding the case, soon after the jury began deliberations Friday, the Seminole County sheriff appealed for calm whatever the outcome might be.
"We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law,” Sheriff Donald Eslinger said.
George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.