By Barbara Liston
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) – As jury selection in the murder trial of Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman resumes on Monday for a second week, security at the courthouse is tight, despite dwindling public interest in the painstakingly slow search for a panel of unbiased jurors.
Attention may pick up once the jury is sworn in and witnesses start testifying about the circumstances that led to the death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, shot by Zimmerman during a confrontation at a gated community in central Florida in February 2012.
As part of stepped-up security, Zimmerman, who is free on bond, enters and exits the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center through a back door. Sometimes hallways are cleared as he passes by surrounded by uniformed officers and his own bodyguard.
A heavy police presence is provided by about two dozen uniformed officers who patrol the parking lots, surround an outdoor public gathering space and staff two separate security checkpoints.
Zimmerman’s wife Shellie watches from behind him in the second row of gallery seating. The bodyguard joined Zimmerman’s wife in court for the first few days until he was ejected for allowing his cellphone to blare out a personalized ringtone with a sound like a crying baby while the court was in session.
Martin’s parents and supporters fill a row behind the prosecutor’s table across a center aisle from Shellie Zimmerman’s seat.
Zimmerman’s current abode is a closely guarded secret. Except for his appearances in court and several TV interviews, he has not seen in public since his arrest.
Zimmerman’s self-imposed confinement, has caused him to put on 130 pounds (59 kilograms) since the killing, making him a hefty 300 pound (136 kg) figure. His attorney, Mark O’Mara, has attributed the weight gain to stress and forced inactivity while Zimmerman has been living in hiding.
The search for potential jurors who are able to keep an open mind despite what they know about the case has not been easy due to blanket U.S. media coverage in the wake of Martin’s death.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, a 29-year-old light-skinned Hispanic who said he killed Martin, 17, in self-defense, igniting widespread criticism, as well as nationwide protests.
Some 28 prospective jurors have made it through a first round of questioning, focused largely on their exposure and reaction to pre-trial publicity. Another 12 are needed from which the final panel of six jurors and four alternates will be selected after a second round of questioning about their views on issues such as race and gun laws.
Protesters outside the courthouse were scarce last week. More than a dozen turned out Monday and eight on Tuesday. By Wednesday, only three young men wearing “Justice for Trayvon” T-shirts showed up and stayed just long enough to take a picture of themselves in front of the building.
Inside the courtroom, most of the public seating has been vacant. That doesn’t surprise the Martin family’s attorney, Ben Crump, who appeared to speak for many when he said jury selection was as exciting as “watching paint dry.”
(Editing by David Adams and Christopher Wilson)