Small but vocal group of demonstrators appear outside courthouse but Sanford police insist there is no cause for alarm

Groups of demonstrators began to appear outside the Seminole County courthouse soon after the jury in George Zimmerman's murder trial was sent out to deliberate on Friday afternoon, as a sheriff declared there was "no tension" in the community and the defendant's family issued a statement appealing for calm.

A small but vocal handful of protesters carrying "I am Trayvon" banners and calling for justice gathered in the rain on the lawn outside the criminal justice center in Sanford.

At a press conference inside, Donald Eslinger, the sheriff of Seminole County, said preparations had been made for any civil unrest but that there was no suggestion of it happening.

"We recognise that this case has stirred up a great deal of emotion but we're not seeing tension here in Seminole County," he said. "There is no party involved in this case that wants to see any violence and we have every expectation upon the announcement of this verdict that our community and its visitors will continue to act peacefully.

"We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law."

Robert Zimmerman, the defendant's brother, released a statement on behalf of his family, noting that the judicial system had run its course. "George's fate is now in the hands of the jury who will make their decision based on evidence and the facts of the case," the statement said.

"As we await a verdict we will remain hopeful and ask for the public to remain peaceful no matter the outcome. Though we maintain George committed no crime whatsoever, we acknowledge that the people who called for George's arrest and subsequent trial have now witnessed both events come to pass.

"We hope now that as Americans we will all respect the rule of law, which begins with respecting the verdict."

Cecil Smith, chief of the Sanford police department, said much progress had been made in community relations in the city since the shooting, and that civil rights protests last year passed off with no arrests.

"Fifteen months ago, 30,000-odd people showed up here and during that same time they requested that several things take place," he said. "They wanted an investigation, they asked for an arrest, they asked for charges to be made and they asked for a trial. Each of those things has taken place.

"It's a trying time for all of us. We're not sure what the verdict is going to bring but it's a great opportunity for evolution of the Sanford community. When this trial passes it will still be our community, when the cameras have gone and the lights are no longer shining on Sanford it will still be our community."

In Martin's home town of Miami, a police spokesman said it was "coincidence" that officers had practiced riot training with horses and batons two days before the jury was sent out.

But sources said that the Miami-Dade police department's intelligence unit had been monitoring social media sites for "unusual interest" in the Zimmerman trial.

Vibert White, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida and an expert in African American studies who has lectured on the case, told the Guardian that he doubted there would be widespread protests if Zimmerman was acquitted.

"For months, Justice Department personnel known as 'peacekeepers' have been working closely with black leadership in Sanford, Deland, Orlando and even Miami advising or instructing them what to do, say, and act in reference to civil rights activism," he said.

"For months, they have pushed the ideal that leaders must continue to say, 'let's have peace' as if a racial spark is ready to ignite the community.

"Therefore blacks, except for a few rowdy kids and crews, are too afraid to radically protest."

© Guardian News and Media 2013

Watch a video report on the protests outside the courtroom Friday by the Orlando Sentinel below