George Zimmerman is accused of doing the unthinkable: shooting an unarmed teenager during a routine neighborhood watch patrol.
The death of Trayvon Martin – and the police decision not to arrest Zimmerman – has devastated Martin’s parents, set off a nationwide debate, and prompted President Obama to speak out in unusually personal terms.
But a friend of Zimmerman says the Florida man is going through his own torment.
“He’s not the man that I knew before the shooting,” Joe Oliver tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story.
“He’s a completely different man; he’ll never be the same. He prays for Trayvon and he prays for the Martin family. He is so distraught that he took a life. That’s the price he had to pay for saving his own.”
Despite the near-universal backlash against Zimmerman, who accused by critics of targeting Trayvon because he’s black, Oliver says he stands behind his friend.
“He’s not a racist,” says Oliver, himself an African-American. “I wouldn’t be speaking out on his behalf if he were. This didn’t have anything to do with race. George was looking out for his neighborhood and he saw someone he didn’t recognize acting suspiciously. In his mind, he shot in self-defense. He felt he had no other choice.”
For more on the Trayvon Martin shooting, including never-before-seen photos and an exclusive interview with his family, pick up PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday