By Daniel Trotta
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - George Zimmerman is not a racist and cried for days after shooting dead a black Florida teenager, a black, longtime friend of Zimmerman said on Sunday in a sympathetic portrayal of a man maligned by critics as a trigger-happy bigot.
Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, shot Trayvon Martin, 17, in what he said was self defense during an altercation in the gated community Zimmerman was watching on February 26 in Sanford, Florida. After attracting little notice initially, the case gained widespread attention, sparking protests and renewing a national debate about race.
"He couldn't stop crying. He's a caring human being," Joe Oliver, 53, a former television news reporter and anchor in Orlando who has known Zimmerman for several years, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Oliver's wife is a close friend of Zimmerman's mother in law, who told him Zimmerman cried for days in remorse after the shooting. He also spoke directly with Zimmerman on Saturday.
"I mean, he took a man's life and he has no idea what to do about it. He's extremely remorseful about it," Oliver said.
Oliver's account differs from the withering criticism Zimmerman has sustained from demonstrators across the country who have demanded his arrest and accused him of racial bias in targeting Martin.
Celebrities have taken up the cause of justice for the teen, many wearing the "hoodie" or hooded sweatshirt that Martin wore in a style popular with black youth. President Barack Obama said "all of us have to do some soul-searching" as a result of the tragedy.
"I'm a black male and all that I know is that George has never given me any reason whatsoever to believe he has anything against people of color," Oliver said.
Sanford police did not arrest Zimmerman, saying the evidence could not disprove his account of self-defense, though the case is under review by a state special prosecutor and the U.S. Justice Department.
Zimmerman dropped out of public view shortly after the shooting and his whereabouts were unknown. The New Black Panther Party, an African American organization taking its name from the radical group of the 1960s, has placed a $10,000 bounty on Zimmerman.
"All these people who are threatening George, what makes them any better than the person they think he is?" Oliver said. "You've got all these people wanting to lynch the man and they don't know the whole story. There are huge gaps that are being filled in and interpreted without evidence."
'LEAP TO CONCLUSION'
As a black man, Oliver said minorities are often unfairly treated, but he believed Zimmerman was simply doing his job as a neighborhood watch volunteer by growing suspicious over an unfamiliar person walking through a neighborhood that had suffered some break-ins.
Martin lived in Miami but was with his father on a visit to his father's fiancée's home inside the gated community.
"I understand how they're able to leap to the conclusion. You have a dead teenager. This guy is white so it must be a hate crime. There's going to be evidence to come out that basically will justify George's concern," Oliver said.
"He (Zimmerman) confirmed for me that he was not the aggressor. But I did not go into details as to how it got to that aggressive point," Oliver said.
A lawyer representing the Martin family disputes Zimmerman's self defense claims, saying he "stalked" Martin against the instructions of a 911 operator.
"It seems Joe Oliver and Geraldo Rivera are in agreement that this senseless shooting is somehow Trayvon Martin's fault," Benjamin Crump said, referring to the celebrity journalist's comment that "Trayvon Martin would be alive today but for his hoodie."
"Had Zimmerman simply stayed in his vehicle, Trayvon Martin would be pursuing his dreams," Crump said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)