SANFORD, Fla. >> Telling Trayvon Martin’s parents and a national TV audience "I am sorry for the loss of your son," neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman took the witness stand in an extraordinary move Friday during his bail hearing, making his first public comments since fatally shooting the unarmed teenager.
A judge set Zimmerman’s bail at $150,000 and his attorney said he could be free in several days. Authorities and attorneys need to work out arrangements to allow Zimmerman to live outside Florida as he awaits trial on a second-degree murder charge because of threats made against him and his family.
Zimmerman claims Martin attacked him after he started following the teenager Feb. 26 because he thought the 17-year-old Martin looked suspicious walking around the gated neighborhood. Zimmerman has said he was punched in the nose and his head was slammed against the sidewalk.
Wearing a charcoal suit, white shirt and gray tie — but also shackled and appearing to have on a bulletproof vest — Zimmerman took the witness stand to deliver a short statement to Martin’s parents, who were in court.
"I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. I did not know if he was armed or not," Zimmerman said.
By going on the witness stand, Zimmerman opened himself up to a series of questions from a prosecutor who grilled him on whether he made an apology to police on the night of the shooting, and why he waited so long to express remorse to Martin’s parents. Zimmerman said he told police after the shooting that he felt sorry for Martin’s parents. He also said he didn’t say anything to the parents sooner because his attorneys told him not to.
Attorneys for Martin’s parents said the apology was disappointing.
"This was the most disingenuous and unfair thing I’ve seen," said Natalie Jackson, one of the attorneys for Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. "This was the most unmeaningful apology."
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester set several conditions for Zimmerman’s release, which he said would not occur Friday. He did not say exactly when Zimmerman could go free.
Zimmerman cannot have any guns, drink alcohol or use illegal drugs and must observe a curfew between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Zimmerman surrendered his passport at the start of the hearing.
The lack of an arrest for 44 days spurred protests nationwide in which participants chanted and held signs that said, "Arrest Zimmerman Now!" Anger over a delay in Zimmerman’s arrest led to the Sanford police chief stepping down temporarily and the recusal of the prosecutor who normally handles cases out of Sanford, which is in central Florida.
Civil rights leaders said if the black teenager had been white, Zimmerman would have been arrested and charged the night of the shooting. Zimmerman’s father is white, and his mother is Hispanic of Peruvian descent.
Earlier, Zimmerman’s parents and wife testified by phone at the hearing because of worries about their safety. They said he was not a flight risk or a threat to the community.
"He is absolutely not a violent person," his wife, Shellie Zimmerman, testified.
Zimmerman’s father, Robert Zimmerman Sr., said that even when confronted his son was likely to "turn the other cheek." The father also described his son’s injuries the morning after Martin was shot.
"His face was swollen quite a bit. He had a protective cover over his nose. His lip was swollen and cut. And there were two vertical gashes on the back of his head," Robert Zimmerman testified.
Zimmerman’s mother, Gladys, said her son was "very protective" of vulnerable people such as the homeless and children. She described how he got involved in a mentoring program for children in Orlando, noting that both of the children he mentored were African-American like Martin.
Gladys Zimmerman said she was concerned about her son’s safety in that program because he traveled twice a month to a dangerous neighborhood.
"He said, ‘Mom, if I don’t go, they don’t have nobody,’" Gladys Zimmerman said.
Prosecutor Bernardo de la Rionda asked the family members about two incidents. In 2005, George Zimmerman had to take anger management courses after an undercover law enforcement officer accused him of attacking him as he tried to arrest Zimmerman’s friend. In another incident, a girlfriend accused Zimmerman of attacking her. No charges were filed.
The hearing provided a few glimpses into the evidence amassed by investigators, and in some cases evidence they do not have.
Dale Gilbreath, an investigator for the state attorney’s office, testified that he does not know whether Martin or Zimmerman threw the first punch and that there is no evidence to disprove Zimmerman’s contention that he was walking back to his vehicle when confronted by Martin.
Gilbreath also said evidence does not back up parts of Zimmerman’s story, such as his claim that Martin was slamming his head against a sidewalk just before he pulled out his handgun and shot the teenager.
"That is not consistent with the evidence we found," said Gilbreath, who did not provide details.
Zimmerman asked to meet with Trayvon Martin’s parents before the hearing, but the family’s lawyers said this was not the time.
"We believe (the) Zimmerman request is very self-serving, considering the timing of it 50 days later, right before his bond hearing," said Justin R. Campbell — an assistant to attorney Benjamin Crump — in an email Thursday.
Legal experts had earlier predicted Zimmerman would likely be granted bail. Key factors include his ties to the local community and that he doesn’t appear to be a flight risk since he turned himself in voluntarily after he was charged last week. He also has never been convicted of a serious crime, which would indicate he doesn’t pose a threat to society.
"Although it’s not routine for people charged with murder to get bond, they do get bond, and I think there is an excellent argument to be made in his specific case for him to be released on bond," said defense attorney Randy McClean, who practices in Seminole County, about 15 miles northeast of Orlando.
Kim Cannaday, a spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, said she couldn’t comment on what security procedures would be in place for Zimmerman if he is released. The sheriff’s office does have the ability to monitor defendants outside the county if a judge requests a GPS monitor be used as a condition of release.
Anderson reported from Miami.