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.
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
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