Sixteen months after a fateful confrontation on a rainy night in Florida left an unarmed teenager dead at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer, the murder trial of George Zimmerman begins with opening statements Monday morning.
The case, which touches the charged third rails of race and gun issues, is expected to last two to four weeks before deliberations by a six-person jury begin. Zimmerman could face life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.
After months of fiery charges and counterpunches, the major players are being careful about what they say as the arena has shifted from the media to the courtroom in Sanford, Fla.
“What I do think we have, and I’m very happy with this, is six jurors who have told us that they’ll be fair and impartial,” Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, said last week after the all-female jury had been chosen after nine days of questioning, or voir dire.
The prosecution has not commented. But the family of Trayvon Martin, 17, whom Zimmerman shot to death, said it also expected a fair and impartial hearing on the case, which prompted national demonstrations by civil rights leaders and comments from top officials, including President Obama.
“With the makeup of this jury, the question of whether every American can get equal justice regardless of who serves on their jury panel will be answered,” the family and its legal team said in a statement. “Equal justice under the law is not a black value or a white value.”
The core of the case will be reflected in the opening statements.
Prosecutors will try to paint Zimmerman, 29, as an eager vigilante and police wannabe who was driving in a gated Sanford community on Feb. 26, 2012, when he saw Martin walking in the rain, wearing a hoodie sweatshirt. The teenager, who was black, was returning to the home of his father’s fiancee after visiting a convenience store, where he had purchased candy and an iced tea.
Suspicious, Zimmerman called the town police to report seeing Martin and told the operator he was following the youth. The operator replied that there was no need for Zimmerman to do that. After the call ended, Zimmerman and Martin had a violent confrontation that ended with Zimmerman firing his licensed 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun and killing the unarmed teenager. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense.
The prosecution contends that Zimmerman profiled Martin, but under a ruling by Judge Debra S. Nelson, the government will not be allowed to say it was racial profiling. Instead, prosecutors will have to present the profile issue as Zimmerman being concerned about other factors, such as Martin’s age. Prosecutors will also argue that Zimmerman followed Martin despite being warned off by the police operator.
The defense will counter that Zimmerman was within his rights in carrying a gun and was just a concerned citizen who called authorities about a suspicious person in an area where crimes had occurred earlier. During the confrontation, Zimmerman was injured, according to pictures to be presented into evidence. That will bolster his self-defense claim.
Nelson ruled Saturday that two prosecution audio experts would not be allowed to testify that background screams on a 911 tape came from Martin. But the tape can be played in court, Nelson ruled, and witnesses familiar with Martin’s voice can testify.
The defense had sought to exclude the prosecution experts, arguing that the science used to make such audio identifications was not reliable. The expert testimony would prejudice the jury against Zimmerman, defense attorneys argued. The prosecution insisted that the science was valid and that it was up to the jury to decide who was screaming.
Another piece of evidence will be the cellphone call between Martin and a girlfriend before the confrontation with Zimmerman. Martin tells her he is scared because he is being followed by an unknown man.
The defense has yet to say whether Zimmerman will take the stand.
The jury will have to sort through the conflicting versions of what happened that night. There are four alternates, two men and two women, who will hear testimony but will not participate in the deliberations unless one of the jurors has to drop out. Jurors will be sequestered and their identities kept secret until after the verdict.
Based on the voir dire, however, some details about the jury are known.
Five of the six jurors are white women and one is a minority. An all-female jury is rare but not unprecedented in Seminole County, lawyers who follow the county’s proceedings say. The final pool of potential jurors was female by a ratio of about 2 to 1.
Four jurors said they had experience with the criminal justice system: Two had been arrested and two, either personally or through a relative, were crime victims. Two said they or a relative had experience with guns.
One said she had “lots of pets,” one said she had “many pets,” and one said she had a dog and a 20-year-old cat.
And one said she didn't watch television news, but “I love my reality shows.”