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Zimmerman Trial in Trayvon Martin’s Death to Begin Today

Miami — From a strictly legal viewpoint, the George Zimmerman murder trial should not be complicated: Jurors will decide if he committed murder or acted in self-defense when he shot an unarmed teenager to death during a brief, violent confrontation inside a Sanford, Fla., gated community.

But this is no ordinary second-degree murder case. Set against the backdrop of racial tension spurred by the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, arguments over Florida’s self-defense law and the scrutiny of worldwide press and social media, Zimmerman’s trial is shaping up to be a test of both criminal justice and modern-day race relations.

First up today is one of the most challenging parts of the case: selecting a jury. Lawyers will select six jurors and four alternates from a pool of 500 from Seminole County, seeking residents who can be fair and impartial despite the publicity surrounding the killing of the African-American teenager. Add the racial plotlines woven into Martin’s case, which will be tried in a central Florida county that is mostly white, and selecting a jury won’t be easy.

Sixteen months after the shooting, the events of Feb. 26, 2012, are still murky.

Zimmerman, 29, who is half-Hispanic, fatally shot Martin on that rainy night last year on the ground of the Retreat of Twin Lakes housing community.

Zimmerman, a college student with hopes of becoming a police officer, was monitoring the neighborhood when he saw Martin. The teenager had been staying with his father after his suspension from Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in Miami. when he decided to walk to a convenience store to buy candy.

Zimmerman, who had a penchant for calling 911 to report suspicious activity, saw Martin walking behind a row of homes. He called police to report a “suspicious guy” who appeared to be drugged, looking into homes.

“These a--holes, they always get away,” he complained during the call. Prosecutors say Zimmerman “profiled” Martin. A dispatcher advised him to wait for officers. Zimmerman nevertheless got out of his truck.

What happened in those next few moments will be the subject of weeks of testimony. Prosecutors believe Zimmerman chased down Martin and in the struggle, shot him once in the chest with his Sig Sauer pistol. Defense lawyers say Martin attacked first, leaving Zimmerman no choice but to fire.

Zimmerman immediately cooperated with Sanford police detectives, who did not initially arrest him. The reason: Florida’s self-defense law, which is likely to be a key issue in the trial. Before 2005, a citizen had the duty to retreat before using lethal force in the face of danger. But Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground law eliminated that duty, and also gave judges more leeway to dismiss a case before it gets to a jury.

With Martin’s outraged family demanding justice and the case attracting national and worldwide attention, the focus on Florida’s law increased. Rallies were held in Sanford, New York and other cities, at which activists called the case a civil rights issue.

Critics said the Stand Your Ground law promotes Wild West vigilantism. Gun-rights advocates countered that Zimmerman had the right to defend himself, with Zimmerman’s lawyers pushing an image of Martin as less-than-innocent aggressor.

Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer who has been the driving force in raising awareness of the case, says he just wants jurors to keep open minds.

“We want equal justice for Trayvon Martin just like George Zimmerman’s family wants equal justice,” he said. “We want the jury to base their verdict on the evidence, not on emotion, not on innuendo, just on the objective evidence.”

Still, Crump acknowledges the case’s scope outside the courtroom.

When “Sanford made a decision that they were not going to arrest the killer, it became a civil rights issue right at that moment,” he said.

Jury selection may take more than two weeks - unusual for a murder case in which the death penalty is not involved.

The racial makeup of the jury is likely to be a major consideration for both sides. The conventional wisdom in criminal court is that African American jurors usually favor the defense.

Not so in the Zimmerman case. Legal observers say they believe black jurors will more be likely to side with prosecutors, who are arguing that Zimmerman “profiled” the teenager as someone who was up to no good.

After a jury is seated, the state will introduce its key evidence.

In their favor: Martin’s girlfriend, who told investigators she was on the phone with him as Zimmerman followed him.

“He said this guy was getting real close to him. Next thing I hear, “why are you following me for?” she told prosecutors. “And I hear this man: ‘What are you doing around here?”

The girl told police Martin said “Get off, get off.”

Other audio - from 911 calls neighbors made as Zimmerman and Martin struggled outside their homes - will also be presented as evidence. Prosecutors hope that audio experts will identify Martin’s voice on the calls crying out in apparent fear; the judge will rule later if jurors can hear the experts’ testimony.

Defense attorneys Mark O’Mara and Don West will likely point to Zimmerman’s cooperation with police and his consistent claims that Martin was bashing his head on concrete.

Also crucial for the defense: Police photos from that night show injuries to the back of Zimmerman’s head. He was also treated for a fractured nose, according to the defense.

Zimmerman himself could play a key role by taking the stand. He chose not to seek an immunity hearing, in which he most likely would have had to testify before the judge.

If he takes the stand at trial, Zimmerman may be less prepared for a scathing cross-examination. But so will prosecutors.

And there’s no guarantee Zimmerman would come across as likeable or believable on the stand.


©2013 The Miami Herald

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