Sixteen months after Trayvon Martin’s death, jurors will tackle a simple question: did George Zimmerman act in self-defence?
Almost 16 months after he shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in a confrontation at his Florida housing estate, George Zimmerman goes on trial on Monday for second-degree murder.
The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of Zimmerman, a white-Hispanic neighbourhood watch captain who was not arrested or charged for a further six weeks, sparked racial tensions, propelled civil rights back into the national consciousness and placed Florida’s controversial gun laws under intense scrutiny.
Yet Zimmerman’s trial in Sanford, which is expected to last up to six weeks, comes down to one basic question.
“Was the man acting in self-defence, or was he the perpetrator?” said Dr 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. “That must be defined. And who wins that argument wins the trial. It’s that simple.”
Zimmerman, 29, who denies murder, has claimed that he fired the single shot from his 9mm pistol because he was in fear of his life. He has said that Martin broke his nose with a punch and was on top of him, bashing his head on to a concrete pavement.
Their encounter at the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community on 26 February 2012 came as Martin, who was visiting his father at a friend’s house after being suspended from his Miami high school, was walking back with a soft-drink and sweets he bought at a local convenience store.
Prosecutors will argue that Zimmerman acted as a vigilante. They will say he profiled the hoodie-wearing teenager as he walked through the development and pursued and confronted him, despite being told not to by a police dispatcher he called to report “a suspicious male” in the neighbourhood.
Court officials have amassed a pool of 500 residents of Seminole County from which the six jurors and four alternates will be chosen in a process beginning on Monday. The jurors must not be identified by name or their photographs taken.
“It will be impossible to find a jury that hasn’t heard of the case,” Dr White said. “It’s going to come down to the race and class of the jury. This is one of the most polarising cases Florida has seen in recent memory.”
Officers from the Sanford police department, the Seminole County sheriff’s office and neighbouring forces will provide extra security at the courthouse and at two adjacent open spaces set aside for demonstrators.
More than 18,000 attended rallies in Sanford last year demanding that Zimmerman be charged, but there were no arrests, leading Don Eslinger, the Seminole County sheriff, to declare his confidence in security arrangements for the trial.
In a further attempt to defuse any tensions, a team of a dozen local pastors from various faiths will rotate in four allocated courtroom seats and report their observations to the community.
“We’re going to be in a position to inform them so that no rumours would surface and get people all stirred up,” the Rev HD Rucker, pastor of Sanford’s First Shiloh church, told Orlando’s Fox35 TV news.
Dr White said Sanford’s African American residents, just under a third of the city’s 53,500 population, will be watching developments closely. “There’s not animosity, but there is concern that justice will prevail [because] it’s been common over the last 50 years for people who have murdered African Americans to have gotten off,” he said.
“Is the judge going to allow Zimmerman and his team to assault the character of Trayvon Martin? If she allows that kind of argument to the floor it won’t look good [for the prosecution], if she allows the jury to listen to peer evidence, that could have a better outcome.”
The judge, Debra Nelson, is the third to handle the case after her two predecessors recused themselves. She set many of the ground rules for evidence at a series of fiery pre-trial hearings in which Zimmerman’s lawyer Mark O’Mara clashed often with state attorney Bernie de la Rionda.
The defence cannot introduce any mention of Martin’s history of marijuana use, his suspension from school, his alleged passion for organised fights or enthusiasm for firearms without clearing it with her first.
Also out is the post-mortem toxicology report that showed he had traces of marijuana in his system when he was killed.
But it is still unclear if voice analysts will be allowed to testify about their conflicting findings from a recording of a 911 call made by a resident that captured somebody screaming and shouting for help just before the fatal shot was fired.
A prosecution expert said he was able to determine that the screams were not Zimmerman’s, but O’Mara said the finding was based on junk science and asked that it be excluded. Nelson will rule before jury selection begins Monday after a three-day hearing on the issue broke up without resolution on Saturday night.
Other crucial evidence will come from the recollections of neighbours and the testimony of an anonymous witness, said to be a girlfriend of Martin who claimed she was on the phone to him when the fatal struggle took place.
Regardless of the trial’s outcome, the case has changed lives forever. Sanford’s former police chief, Bill Lee, found himself out of a job when he was heavily criticised for his department’s original decision to release Zimmerman without charge.
Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who divorced 14 years ago, now appear together regularly and have met the families of other young shooting victims across the nation. Their Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation, which aims to raise social awareness of similar cases, has the support of prominent civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
They also tried to get Florida’s lawmakers to amend the state’s stand-your-ground law, which allows for the use of deadly force in situations when a person feels their life is in danger. After a six-month inquiry, legislators decided to leave the law as it is. Zimmerman has waived his right to a separate stand-your-ground immunity hearing and chose instead to argue his self-defence case at trial.
Fulton, speaking at a prayer meeting at a Miami church, said she was pleased that the trial was near. “I say to you, I stand here as a mother, that my heart is hurting, but I know that God will work this out,” she said in tears.
Zimmerman has been in hiding since he was freed on bail for the second time in June 2012 and is virtually bankrupt according to O’Mara, following the depletion of a defence fund supported by public contributions. His wife Shellie is being sued for perjury after she allegedly lied at a bail hearing about the couple’s finances while Zimmerman is suing NBC, claiming it doctored a recording of his call to police on the night of the shooting in order to portray him as a racist.
His brother has acted as the family’s spokesman in recent months and said he does not believe a jury will accept the prosecution’s argument that Zimmerman, who faces at least 25 years in jail if convicted, followed and attacked Martin.
“We’re optimistic in the sense that we have no doubt George will be acquitted,” he told CBS News. “We do not waver from our position that we’ve consistently maintained, that George is innocent and acted in self-defence.”