Jury selection in the case of black teenager Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting has begun in Florida, the scene of massive protests last year by people angry that police waited 44 days before charging a neighborhood watch volunteer with second-degree murder.
The case drew worldwide attention as it fanned a debate about race, equal justice under the law and gun control.
There is no dispute that George Zimmerman shot an unarmed Martin, 17, during a fight on a rainy night in February last year. However, prosecutors will try to show Zimmerman racially profiled the teenager, while his attorney must convince jurors Zimmerman fired a bullet into the high-school student’s chest because he feared for his life.
On Monday, the first group of 100 potential jurors filled out questionnaires about themselves and their ability to serve on the jury as prosecutors and defense attorneys sought to find six objective members and four alternates.
In Florida, 12 jurors are required only for criminal trials involving capital cases, when the death penalty is being considered.
By the time the all-day session concluded, attorneys had interviewed four potential jurors, asking them what they had heard about the case on television, in newspapers and on the Internet.
Zimmerman was present in the jury holding room as his defense attorneys and prosecutors introduced themselves to the potential jurors.
“The more opportunities for the potential jurors to interact with the defendant, even if the defendant is just sitting there, the better,” said Orlando defense attorney David Hill, who has no connection to the case. “Jurors have to see him as a human being in the flesh, not a theoretical person accused of a crime. Any possible way they can connect with him is good from the defense point of view.”
Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder. He says he shot Martin in self-defense. If convicted, Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, could get a life sentence.
Under Florida law, Zimmerman, 29, could shoot Martin in self-defense if it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
The confrontation began when Zimmerman spotted Martin, whom he did not recognize, walking in the gated estate community where Zimmerman lived and the fiancee of Martin’s father also lived. There had been a rash of recent break-ins there, and Zimmerman was wary of strangers. He was well-known to police dispatchers for his regular calls reporting suspicious people and events.
Martin was walking back from a convenience store after buying iced tea and Skittles. It was raining, and he was wearing a hoodie.
Zimmerman called police, got out of his vehicle and followed Martin despite being told not to by a police dispatcher.
“These assholes, they always get away,” Zimmerman said on the call.
Zimmerman, who had a concealed weapons permit, was armed.
The two then got into a struggle. Zimmerman told police he had lost sight of Martin, and that Martin circled back and attacked him as he walked back to his truck. Prosecutors say he tracked down Martin and started the fight.
Zimmerman told police Martin punched him in the nose, knocking him down and then got on top of him and began banging Zimmerman’s head on the sidewalk.
Photos taken after the fight show Zimmerman with a broken nose, bruises and bloody cuts on the back of his head.
He said that when Martin spotted his gun holstered around his waist under his clothes, he said: “You are going to die tonight.”
Zimmerman said he grabbed the gun first and fired. Martin died at the scene.
Police calls made by neighbors captured cries for help during the fight and then the gunshot. Martin’s parents say the cries were from their son, while Zimmerman’s father has testified they were from his son.