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SANFORD, Fla. — In the first order of business in the trial of a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed teen, a judge today denied a defense request to delay the trial’s start.
Circuit Judge Debra Nelson rejected the delay request in George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial after lead defense attorney Mark O’Mara told the judge his defense team needed several more weeks to prepare.
O’Mara blamed prosecutors for a delay in turning over evidence and said he needs time to interview an attorney for Martin’s family. Prosecutors opposed the request for a delay.
“We’re not fully ready and need more time,” O’Mara said.
Jury selection began today in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, Fla., the scene of massive protests by people who were angered that police waited 44 days before charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Other demonstrations were held around the country, and the case drew worldwide attention as it fanned a debate about race, equal justice under the law and gun control.
There is no dispute Zimmerman shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin, 17, during a fight on a rainy night in February 2012. Prosecutors will try to show the neighborhood watch volunteer racially profiled the black teenager, while Zimmerman’s attorney must convince jurors Zimmerman pulled his 9 mm handgun and fired a bullet into the high school student’s chest because he feared for his life.
Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder. He says he shot Martin in self-defense. If convicted, Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, could get a life sentence.
Under Florida law, Zimmerman, 29, could shoot Martin in self-defense if it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
Law enforcement officials at the Seminole County Courthouse had been anticipating scores of protesters supporting either Martin’s family or Zimmerman. But the crowds stayed away on the first day of the trial. Tierrel Mathis, a Florida A&M law student, was the sole person in a fenced off area designated for protests in the hours before the hearing started and she didn’t even describe herself as a protester. She said she merely wanted to observe the starts to one of the highest-profile trials in central Florida.
“I thought there would be mobs of people,” Mathis said.
About a dozen protesters showed up a few minutes after jury selection started. Some carried signs that said “We Say No More.”
Talking to reporters, Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, expressed relief that the trial was starting.
“We seek a fair and impartial trial,” Tracy Martin said. “We ask that the community continue to stay peaceful as we place our faith in the justice system.”
O’Mara, has to be careful how he characterizes Martin, said Randy McClean, an Orlando-area defense attorney.
“Mr. O’Mara’s challenge is to show Trayvon wasn’t profiled, that Zimmerman either saw something that looked suspicious or something else that caused him to make contact with Trayvon.”
McClean and another Orlando defense attorney, David Hill, predicted prosecutors will attack Zimmerman as a frustrated, would-be police officer who had a chip on his shoulder. Zimmerman was employed at a mortgage risk management firm. He had studied criminal justice at a community college and had volunteered to run his community’s neighborhood watch program.
“The state’s narrative is going to be ... Zimmerman was a powerful neighborhood watchman, a wannabe officer who liked to use his authority,” McClean said.
The Feb. 26, 2012, confrontation began when Zimmerman spotted Martin, whom he did not recognize, walking in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated townhome community where Zimmerman lived and the fiancee of Martin’s father also resided. There had been a rash of recent break-ins at the Retreat, and Zimmerman was wary of strangers walking through the complex. He was well-known to police dispatchers for his regular calls reporting suspicious people and events.
Martin was walking back from a convenience store after buying ice tea and Skittles. It was raining, and he was wearing a hoodie.
Zimmerman called 911, got out of his vehicle and followed Martin behind the townhomes despite being told not to by a police dispatcher. “These a------s, they always get away,” Zimmerman said on the call. Zimmerman, who had a concealed weapons permit, was armed.
The two then got into a struggle. Zimmerman told police he had lost sight of Martin, and that Martin circled back and attacked him as he walked back to his truck. Prosecutors say he tracked down Martin and started the fight.
Zimmerman told police Martin punched him in the nose, knocking him down, and then got on top of him and began banging Zimmerman’s head on the sidewalk. Photos taken after the fight show Zimmerman with a broken nose, bruises and bloody cuts on the back of his head. He said that when Martin spotted his gun holstered around his waist under his clothes, he said, “You are going to die tonight.” Zimmerman said he grabbed the gun first and fired. Martin died at the scene.
Given the low visibility on the dark, rainy night of the shooting, few residents of the Retreat at Twin Lakes were able to give investigators a good description of what happened, and several offered conflicting accounts of who was on top of whom during the struggle.
But 911 calls made by neighbors captured cries for help during the fight and then the gunshot. Martin’s parents say the cries for help were from their son, while Zimmerman’s father has testified they were from his son. Voice-recognition experts could play an important role in helping jurors decide who was screaming, provided they are allowed to testify. O’Mara had raised questions about whether such prosecution experts would mislead jurors and Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has yet to rule.
The shooting received little initial attention, but that changed after Martin’s parents hired Benjamin Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney. He began complaining to the news media, accusing the police and prosecutors of letting the murderer of a black child go free, and contacting other civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to get their support.
Gov. Rick Scott appointed State Attorney Angela B. Corey from the nearby Jacksonville district to re-examine the case. She decided to charge Zimmerman.
For the past year, Zimmerman has been free on $1 million bond and living in seclusion.
O’Mara earlier decided not to invoke a “stand your ground” hearing in which a judge alone would decide whether to dismiss the case or allow it to proceed to trial.
It’s not clear whether Zimmerman will take the stand, but he has already testified in pretrial hearings.
Another crucial witness will be a Miami-area female friend of Martin’s who was talking to the teen by cellphone as he was walking through the Retreat at Twin Lakes followed by Zimmerman. She says Martin told her during that conversation that someone was following him and that she also heard a brief exchange between him and someone before the phone was cut off. Martin was shot shortly afterward. But O’Mara already has called into question her credibility, accusing her of lying about missing Martin’s funeral because she was in the hospital.
Prosecutors have refused to comment about the case outside the courtroom. Areas near the courthouse have been designated for expected protests.
“We want to make sure this trial is tried in a courtroom and not outside a courtroom,” lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said.