Acquittal of Zimmerman is Fla.’s top story

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — It was yet another high-profile trial in central Florida that attracted around-the-clock cable television news coverage and captivated viewers from around the world.

But unlike the Casey Anthony trial two summers earlier, which was a domestic drama involving a mother accused of killing her toddler, the murder trial of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin tackled two of the thorniest issues confronting America: race and gun control. For those reasons, the George Zimmerman trial was voted the state’s story of the year for 2013 by Florida newspaper and broadcast editors.

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Trayvon Martin

Trailing the Zimmerman trial in the editors’ picks were the rejection by the Florida Legislature to expand the state’s Medicaid program and the disclosure of records by The Miami New Times linking an anti-aging clinic to the distribution of performance enhancing drugs to major league baseball players.

The six female jurors picked for Zimmerman’s trial had to determine whose story to believe: Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense or prosecutors’ contention that Zimmerman was a vigilante who profiled Martin and decided the Black teen was up to no good in the gated community where Zimmerman lived and Martin was visiting.

A prosecutor began the trial with a jolt by repeating obscenities Zimmerman said to a dispatcher while following Martin. The neighborhood watch volunteer’s defense attorney followed with a knock-knock joke that fell flat. Over the next three weeks, prosecutors and defense attorneys tried to convince jurors whose voice was screaming for help on 911 calls that captured the fight. Martin’s mother, father and brother testified it was the Miami teen screaming for help; Zimmerman’s mother, uncle, father and five friends told jurors it was the neighborhood watch volunteer’s voice.

The most memorable witness was Rachel Jeantel, the young woman from Miami who was on the phone with Martin in the moments before he was shot. Her testy exchanges with a defense attorney, her lack of polish and her use of the term “creepy-ass cracker” in recounting how Martin described Zimmerman made her the brunt of spoof accounts poking fun at her candid statements and dialect.

The instructions jurors were given after three weeks of testimony allowed them to find Zimmerman not guilty if they had reasonable doubt or if they thought it was a justifiable use of force. Under Florida law, Zimmerman could use justifiable force not only if he faced death or bodily harm but also if he merely thought he did.

After deliberating over two days, the jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter. In the weeks following the verdict, protests were held around the nation. Protests in Oakland and Los Angeles turned mildly violent, but the response to the Zimmerman verdict was nothing like the massive 1992 Los Angeles uprising that killed 53 people after police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating.

These news items rounded out the top 10 stories of the year:

2. The Florida Legislature rejected a plan to expand the state’s Medicaid program, turning down a promised $50 billion in federal funding. The decision left 1.1 million Floridians uninsured for now. Gov. Rick Scott originally had opposed the expansion but made a dramatic about-face when he announced his support for Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law.

3.  The Miami New Times obtained records that linked the anti-aging clinic Biogenesis to the distribution of performance enhancing drugs to major league baseball players, including New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez. He denied the claim and later fought a lengthy suspension.  Also mentioned in the leaked documents were 2012 All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera, 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon and 2011 AL championship series MVP Nelson Cruz.

4.  Florida election officials revived plans that they say will remove non-U.S. citizens from the state’s voter rolls without also purging eligible citizens, despite criticism that minority voters are being targeted. To promote the plan, Secretary of State Ken Detzner held five meetings with county election officials around the state. Some election supervisors say there remains scant evidence of widespread voter fraud conducted by non-U.S. citizens.

5.  Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist announced that he will run for governor next year as a Democrat against Scott, the GOP incumbent. Crist is now considered the Democratic front-runner in the contest to challenge Scott, one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

6.  The arrest of 57 defendants on charges they were running a $300 million gambling operation out of Internet cafes around the state led to the resignation of Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll and caused the Legislature to ban the storefront Internet centers. Carroll had worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans, the charity group operating the Internet cafes, though she was never accused of wrongdoing. The first of the defendants, an attorney for the veterans’ group, went on trial and was convicted on 103 counts in October.

7. Scott signed into law a statewide ban on texting while driving, making Florida the 40th state to enact a texting-while-driving ban for all drivers. The law makes it a secondary offense to read or send a text, email or instant message on a smartphone while driving. That means police have to first stop drivers for another offense, such as an illegal turn.

8.  A state task force concluded that Florida’s so-called stand your ground law shouldn’t be amended. The parents of Trayvon Martin had asked the task force to change the 2005 law following the fatal shooting of their son by George Zimmerman. But the task force said in a report that people have a right to feel safe and secure in Florida, and they have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack.

9.  Florida’s unemployment rate fell to 6.4 percent in November, the lowest level in over five years. Scott maintains his policies have helped Florida’s recovery, but economists say there are other reasons for the decline: People are leaving the labor force or have delayed their job search.

10. Duke Energy canceled plans to build a nuclear plant and repair another in the state’s Big Bend area. The country’s largest utility cited changes in the energy market — including natural gas prices — and regulatory hurdles at the state and federal level. Despite the scuttled plans, Duke intends to charge its 1.7 million Florida customers a monthly fee to pay for the costs it incurred planning the construction on the plants.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mikeschneiderap

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