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 immediate future of the former neighborhood watch volunteer.
The U.S. 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, making it sound as if he were 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 nation's justice system and with race relations in America.
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 Bernstein Crisis Management Inc.
Hiding is not an unfamiliar feeling for Zimmerman, whose last known appearance in public, before the trial, was on Feb. 26, 2012 — the night of the shooting. He was on his way to do his weekly grocery shopping when he saw Martin walking in Zimmerman's gated community.
Now, despite the acquittal, it is unlikely that he will be able to do something as mundane as shop for groceries, unaccompanied, for a long time.
Security experts and crisis management pros say Zimmerman must immediately get a security plan in place. That could involve hiring a 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, Calif., said that if Zimmerman were to hire his firm, he would have a stable of former Navy SEALs and special operations 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 could blend into a busy community — and then quietly file court paperwork to change his name and create a “protective bubble.”
“No one enters the bubble,” said Davis. “It moves with you.”
For someone in Zimmerman's situation, Davis' optimal security plan would involve a big team of guards for a few weeks, a cross-country move and a fortified car. Restaurants would have to be 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,” Davis said. “A movie theater is a death trap.”
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 a website and raised $200,000 for his legal defense. His family and attorneys also have set up fundraising websites, but it's unclear how much they have raised.
Zimmerman's attorneys say their client hasn't worked since the shooting.
“If he's doing a book deal,” Bernstein said, “he should keep it quiet, and don't come out with a book in a hurry.”
Bernstein added that he would advise Zimmerman not to speak to reporters 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.”
Possible legal action against Zimmerman could eat into any money he might make.
Martin's family could sue Zimmerman in civil court, much as Ronald Goldman's family sued O.J. Simpson after Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson were murdered. 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. Though legal experts say that is unlikely, Zimmerman could be forced into paying for more lawyers if it does happen.
Veteran publicist Glen Selig said Zimmerman should avoid publicity.
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 criminal justice system is often an imperfect system of handling wrongs that occurred,” Sundby said. “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.”
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