Race will be key in George Zimmerman trial

George Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder  in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Jury selection for his trial starts today and could take more than two weeks.

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George Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Jury selection for his trial starts today and could take more than two weeks.

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 today in a Seminole circuit court, one of the most challenging parts of the case: selecting a jury.

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 African-American teen. Add the racial plot lines woven into Martin'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 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.

Jose Baez, a high-profile defense attorney in Coral Gables who earned an acquittal in the 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."

Fifteen months after the shooting, the events of Feb. 26, 2012, are still murky.

Zimmerman, 29, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, fatally shot Martin on that rainy night on the grounds of the Retreat of Twin Lakes housing community.

A college student with hopes of becoming a police officer, he was monitoring the neighborhood when he saw Martin. The teen had been staying with his father after his suspension from Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in Miami 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 Martin 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" Martin. 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 Zimmerman chased Martin down and in the struggle, shot him once in the chest with his Sig Sauer pistol. Defense lawyers say Martin 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 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 Martin 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 African-American jurors usually favor the defense.

Not so in the Zimmerman case. Legal observers say they believe black jurors will be more likely to side with prosecutors, who are arguing that Zimmerman "profiled" Martin as someone who was up to no good.

Defense attorney Baez thinks the state will have success landing African-American jurors.

Even having attended a Martin 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 its favor: Martin'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 Martin said, "Get off, get off."

Other audio — from 911 calls neighbors made as Zimmerman and Martin struggled outside their homes — will also be presented as important evidence. Prosecutors hope that audio experts will identify Martin's voice on the calls crying out in apparent fear; a judge will rule 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 Martin 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 Jeffrey Weiner, a defense attorney who had the first Miami murder case thrown out by a judge under the stand your ground 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.

Key players in the Zimmerman case

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: The defendant charged with second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman was a self-appointed neighborhood watchman with a penchant for calling 911 to report suspicious activity at the small Retreat of Twin Lakes gated community. A 29-year-old former criminal justice student, the man at the center of the racially charged case has a white father and a Hispanic mother. He claims he acted in self-defense when he shot and killed the unarmed teen.

MARK O'MARA: Known as a savvy litigator with a calming courtroom presence, the Orlando lawyer took over Zimmerman's defense shortly before his April 2012 arrest. A lawyer since 1982, O'Mara has not shied away from representing clients in difficult cases over the years, including several in death penalty cases. A longtime legal analyst for Orlando media, O'Mara has also been adept at defending Zimmerman in the media, frequently speaking to reporters and creating a website to disseminate information and seek donations that have topped $145,000.

DONALD WEST: A respected Orlando defense attorney and longtime friend of O'Mara, West left the Federal Public Defender's Office last year to join the Zimmerman defense team. A lawyer for more than three decades, West has worked often in high-profile death penalty litigation. He is also a former president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

BERNARDO DE LA RIONDA: After the governor specially appointed the 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office, based in Jacksonville, to investigate the shooting, De La Rionda drew the assignment as prosecutor. One of the top homicide prosecutors in an office that covers Nassau, Duval and Clay counties, he is considered a fiery courtroom litigator, prosecuting some of the most heinous killers. In 2011, he obtained a death sentence against a Georgia man who used Craigslist to meet a Navy wife, stabbing her 89 times. In 2010, the FBI honored him with a "Director's Community Leadership Award" for his work in crime prevention.

JOHN GUY: Also a top homicide prosecutor in the 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office, Guy has tried more than 100 murder cases and is known for a cool and collected courtroom presence. He joined the office in 1993.

SEMINOLE COUNTY CIRCUIT JUDGE DEBRA S. NELSON: The third judge assigned to the Zimmerman case, Nelson is known as a no-nonsense, efficient jurist who is tough on lawyers on both sides. She is also presiding over the case of Shellie Zimmerman, George's wife, who is accused of perjury in allegedly lying about the family's finances after her husband's arrest. Nelson was raised in Miami Beach and worked as a Broward County prosecutor before moving to Tallahassee in 1983 to become staff counsel for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs. She later practiced for more than a decade as a private civil attorney before then-Gov. Jeb Bush picked her to become a judge in 1999.

BENJAMIN CRUMP: Representing the Martin family, the Tallahassee civil rights lawyer has been a driving force in raising awareness about Martin's killing. In the wake of the teenager's death, Crump has been instrumental in organizing rallies, setting up media interviews and obtaining high-profile speakers such as the Rev. Al Sharpton to speak in favor of criminal charges against Zimmerman. Florida civil rights advocates know him well: Crump was also instrumental in championing the cause of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who died after he was beaten by guards at a Panhandle boot camp in 2006.

Race will be key in George Zimmerman trial 06/09/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 10, 2013 12:52am]

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