Steve Helling
July 29, 2013 12:00 PM

Late in the evening of July 13, attorneys for Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton got word that the six-member jury had reached a verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing their 17-year-old son Trayvon. But as the verdict was read, Trayvon’s parents, who had been the trial’s most faithful attendees, were notably absent in Courtroom 5D at the Seminole County courthouse in Sanford, Fla. “It has been hard every step of the way,” said their attorney Daryl Parks. “They had to endure the pain of hearing gunshot after gunshot and seeing the face of their son in the morgue. We recommended that they go home and attend church the next morning.”

The not-guilty verdict “devastated” Trayvon’s parents, says Parks. “They will never be the same.” Tracy Martin, 47, immediately took to Twitter to share his grief. “Even though I’m brokenhearted, my faith is unshattered. I will always love my Baby Tray.”

The trial had been no less excruciating for Zimmerman’s family. “We were walking on eggshells around each other,” Zimmerman’s brother Robert told PEOPLE. “Nothing was happy during that time.” Before the verdict was read, he and his parents entered a side door of the courthouse to avoid the protesters congregated out front. “The narrative was that George is a racist, but he’s not,” says Robert, 32. “Because of that, we’ve had to deal with threats, not just for him, but for the entire family.”

It was a stunning conclusion to a dramatic case that became a referendum on race and gun laws after Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot the unarmed black teen walking through his gated community on Feb. 26, 2012. After the verdict, a juror told CNN that Zimmerman “had a right to defend himself.” The acquittal frustrated millions of Americans. “It is a pattern involving young black men that is too often repeating itself,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said on Facebook. “The struggle for fairness and justice is not over.” Demonstrators from across the nation protested the jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman, while the U.S. Justice Department announced that they would review the case.

Despite the ongoing national debate, Robert insists the case is ultimately about two families – not race. “Our family had to stick together to survive,” he says. “And I sympathize with Trayvon’s family. They have suffered a huge loss.” Although Zimmerman has shed the GPS device that monitored his movements since his arrest, his family says he’s a free man with an uncertain future and will struggle with the fallout from the case for life. “Though we’ve survived that ordeal,” says Robert, “the rawness of the emotion stays with us today, and for the foreseeable future.”

Sybrina Fulton, 47, hopes to channel her grief into becoming a symbol of change. “I’m realizing that God is using me to stand up for my son, your son and all teenagers: black, brown and those that wear hoodies,” she tweeted the day before the verdict. “You can break down a woman temporarily, but a real woman will always pick up the pieces, rebuild herself and come back stronger than ever.”

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