SANFORD, FLA. — Following his acquittal on all charges in the fatal shooting death of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman will spend no time behind bars.
But that’s about the only certainty in the former neighborhood watch volunteer’s immediate future.
The Department of Justice has announced it will look into the case, which could lead to criminal civil rights charges, and Zimmerman may also face civil lawsuits from Martin’s family.
He could also potentially make a lot of money by writing a book or from a lawsuit he filed last year against a major television network for allegedly editing his 911 call to police to make it sound like he was racist.
For the moment, however, veteran publicists say Zimmerman’s options are limited.
The case and his trial have become — for some — a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the country’s justice system, and with race relations in America today.
The six-member jury’s not-guilty verdict late Saturday prompted a wave of anger among civil rights leaders and others, and protests have erupted across the country. Image handlers say Zimmerman needs to take that anger, and potential death threats, seriously.
“I have one short piece of advice for him,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of the Southern California-based Bernstein Crisis Management Inc.
Hiding is not an unfamiliar feeling for Zimmerman, whose last known appearance in public was on Feb. 26, 2012, the night of the shooting: He was headed to Target to do his weekly grocery shopping before he encountered Martin.
Zimmerman has been living a hermit’s life since then and during the months leading up to his highly publicized trial. And now, despite the acquittal, it is unlikely that he will ever be able to do something as mundane as grocery shopping — at least not unaccompanied — for a very long time.
Security experts and crisis management pros say the former neighborhood watch volunteer must immediately get a security plan in place. This could involve hiring an expensive team of bodyguards or consultants who will assess whether the threats against him are credible.
Richard Davis, the operations director for The Bodyguard Group of Beverly Hills, said that if Zimmerman were to hire his firm, he would have a stable of former Navy SEALS and Special Forces guards looking out for his safety around the clock. They would relocate him to a safe home (probably in a large city where he can blend into a busy community), quietly file court paperwork to change his name and create a “protective bubble.”
“No one enters the bubble,” said Davis, whose company has provided security for A-list celebrities and politicians. “It moves with you.”
Davis described what he thinks is the optimal security plan for someone in Zimmerman’s situation: a big team of guards for the initial few weeks following the verdict, a cross-country move, and an armored car. Restaurants would have to be pre-screened, exercise would have to be done in a home gym and a trip to the movies would be out of the question.
“You can’t go in that store alone, you can’t go to the movies ever, unless you rent out the whole theater for yourself,” he said. “A movie theater is a death trap.”
All of this isn’t cheap. Davis estimates that it would cost $3,000 a day initially to pay for such security. But if it keeps Zimmerman alive, he said, it’s a small price to pay.
To be sure, there are less expensive security and bodyguard options. But all will cost money — and Zimmerman, who worked as a mortgage underwriter prior to the shooting, isn’t independently wealthy.
At one point following the shooting, Zimmerman had his own website and raised $200,000 for his legal defense. His family and attorneys also have set up separate fundraising websites, but it’s unclear how much they have raised.
Zimmerman’s attorneys say that their client hasn’t worked since the shooting. Of course, people in high-profile cases sometimes win lucrative deals to write books or sell their life stories so they can be made into a movie or television program.
Bernstein said if Zimmerman was his client, he would advise against this right now.
“If he’s doing a book deal, he should keep it quiet, and don’t come out with a book in a hurry,” said Bernstein, adding that he would advise Zimmerman not to speak to the news media in either paid or unpaid appearances.
“The more you talk, the more you are a target,” he said. “The court has spoken for him. The best thing he could possibly do is go below the radar.”
There’s also the possibility of further legal action against Zimmerman — some of which could impact any money that he makes.
Martin’s family could sue Zimmerman in civil court, much like Ronald Goldman’s family did with OJ Simpson. Any proceeds Zimmerman makes from a book or movie deal could be turned over to the Martins, if a civil jury were to find him guilty.
And then there is the possibility that the Department of Justice could bring a federal hate-crime charge against Zimmerman. While legal experts say this is unlikely, Zimmerman could be forced into paying for more lawyers if it does happen.
Veteran publicist Glen Selig said in the coming weeks and months, Zimmerman should let others speak for him and avoid most, if not all, publicity. By speaking to the news media about the case, Zimmerman risks making the story about him — and not about the larger, more complicated issues of race and justice.
“I would clearly advise him not to become the lightning rod for this issue,” Selig said.
Emotions over the case are running high, especially among those who think Zimmerman should have been found guilty, said Scott Sundby, a law professor at the University of Miami.
“The hard thing about the law sometimes is that we can have intuitive responses that an outcome is not fair but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the law was not followed,” Sundby said.
“The criminal justice system is often an imperfect system of handling wrongs that occurred. Many acts we feel were unjust will go unpunished by the law because of larger issues as to why the system is set up that way.”