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 fatally shot an unarmed Miami Gardens teenager during a brief, violent confrontation inside a Sanford 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, heated 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.
And first up Monday in a Seminole Circuit court, one of the most challenging parts of the case: selecting a jury.
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Lawyers will select six jurors plus four alternates from a pool of 500 from Seminole County, seeking citizens who can be fair and impartial despite the vast publicity surrounding the killing of the black teen. Add the racial plot lines woven into Trayvon’s case, which will be tried in a Central Florida county that is mostly white, and selecting a jury won’t be easy.
“The racial thing is a going to be a big problem for the state. I’m sure the state is going to want African Americans and there won’t be that many called into service,” said Sandy Marks, a Miami jury consultant. “It’s going to be a very long and arduous jury selection process.”
High-profile Coral Gables defense attorney Jose Baez, who earned an acquittal in the closely watched Casey Anthony murder case, said that “as much as the lawyers don’t want this to be about race, it is. I don’t think it should be avoided in any of the discussion. It should be tackled head on. I think that’s what makes this case unique.”
Sixteen months after the shooting, the events of Feb. 26, 2012, are still murky.
Zimmerman, 29, who is half-Hispanic, fatally shot Trayvon 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 Trayvon. The teen had been staying with his father after his suspension from Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in North Miami-Dade. when he decided to walk to a convenience store to buy candy.
Zimmerman, who had a penchant for calling 911 to report suspicious activity, spied Trayvon 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 on the line.
Prosecutors insist Zimmerman “profiled” Trayvon. 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 the older man chased down Trayvon and in the struggle, shot him once in the chest with his Sig Sauer pistol. Defense lawyers say Trayvon 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 greater leeway to dismiss a case before it ever gets to a jury.
With Trayvon Martin’s outraged family demanding justice and the case picking up national and worldwide steam, the focus on Florida’s law increased. Rallies were held in Sanford, New York and other cities with activists calling 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 Trayvon 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.
“Opinions are being shaped not just on the facts, but on the law itself,” said Miami defense lawyer Eduardo X. Pereira, who has earned two recent dismissals of self-defense murder cases. “In a normal murder case, nobody is in favor of murder. But in a Stand Your Ground case, you’re going to have people who either agree with the law or not.
“The key for any attorney will be identifying them and explaining the importance of the fundamental right to self defense to those who don’t yet understand or agree with Stand Your Ground.”
The racial makeup of the jury is also likely to be a major consideration for both sides. The conventional wisdom in criminal court is that black 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 teen as someone who was up to no good.
Defense attorney Baez thinks the state will have success landing black jurors.
Even having attended a Trayvon rally in Sanford or having read about the case won’t be enough to boot a juror, Baez believes. Instead, he said, the judge will likely attempt to “rehabilitate” jurors who may have been exposed to details of the case, making sure they can be impartial and consider the facts.
“I think the judge will be on ultra-alert to prevent the defense from excluding anyone based on race,” Baez said.
And once a jury is seated, the state will introduce its key evidence.
In their favor: Trayvon’s girlfriend who told investigators she was on the phone with the teen 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 Trayvon said “Get off, get off.”
Other audio — from 911 calls neighbors made as Zimmerman and Trayvon struggled outside their homes — will also be presented as important evidence. Prosecutors hope that audio experts will identify Trayvon’s voice on the calls crying out in apparent fear; the judge will rule later if jurors can hear the experts’ testimony.
Still, many legal experts say the case is the defense team’s to lose. The state will have a tough time proving “ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent” needed to convict on a charge of second-degree murder. But jurors also might reach a “compromise” verdict by convicting Zimmerman of a less-serious offense such as manslaughter, a result prosecutors may be considering.
“I have no doubt they’re shooting for a manslaughter,” Baez said.
An acquittal is also possible, given the evidence the defense is likely to introduce. Defense attorneys Mark O’Mara and Don West will likely point to Zimmerman’s cooperation with police and his consistent claims that Trayvon 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.
“I think the injuries Zimmerman clearly had explains why he wasn’t arrested on the spot,” said defense attorney Jeffrey Weiner, who had the first Miami murder case thrown out by a judge under the Stand Your Ground immunity law after it was enacted in 2005.
“It raises reasonable doubt. This wasn’t just a little scratch. These were serious injuries. I think Mr. Zimmerman has an excellent opportunity to be found not guilty.”
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.
The move was a double-edged sword, lawyers say. 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.
“It may well be that the evidence comes out, and the defense feels that there is reasonable doubt. They may feel there’s no need to risk it by putting their client on,” Weiner said.