Jury Selection Begins In George Zimmerman Trial

Jury selection began Monday in the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin last year. Zimmerman saw Martin walking through his neighborhood at night, in the rain and wearing a hoodie. The two fought and the case centers on whether it was murder or self-defense. The racially-charged trial also drew its share of protesters at the courthouse.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Jury selection began today in the trial of George Zimmerman. He's the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin last year in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman tailed Martin through a row of townhouses on a rainy night, first in a truck, then on foot. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge. He describes himself as Hispanic. Martin was African-American. And the racially-charged trial now centers on whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense.

NPR's Russell Lewis reports from Sanford.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: With all the build-up leading into this case, Judge Debra Nelson began with little fanfare.

JUDGE DEBRA NELSON: We're on the record in Case Number 12-CF-1083-A, State of Florida versus George Zimmerman.

LEWIS: Tension is high. Security around the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center is similar to what you'd find at an airport, but sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement officers are everywhere. The family of Trayvon Martin even gave an unscheduled statement to the media. His father, Tracy Martin, spoke for a minute and pleaded with people to remain calm.

TRACY MARTIN: We ask that the community continue to stay peaceful as we place our faith in the justice system. And we ask that the community do the same.

LEWIS: Authorities had set aside two areas outside the courthouse for protesters but few people showed up today. At lunch, eight protesters marched, chanted and demanded justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Trayvon did not have to die.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in unison) We all know the reason is why. The whole system is guilty. The whole system is guilty.

LEWIS: George Zimmerman wasn't arrested until a month after the shooting. At first, local prosecutors and Sanford police said Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense, despite Zimmerman seeking out and following Martin as he returned from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles candy and ice tea. Florida has a broad Stand Your Ground Law, which permits people who fear for their lives to use deadly force.

After weeks of protests and mounting pressure around the country, Florida's governor put a special prosecutor in place who said there was enough evidence to charge Zimmerman with murder.

Inside the courtroom today, George Zimmerman has been sitting quietly. His attorney, Mark O'Mara, opened the day by asking the judge to delay the trial.

MARK O'MARA: We're not fully ready and we need more time. That time may be as short as a few weeks. It may be as short as a couple weeks. The problem is we don't know until we actually do all the work that we need to do. And even with the efforts done to date, we need more time.

LEWIS: O'Mara says he still hasn't completed going through a trove of evidence recently released to him by the state. And he hasn't finished interviewing all potential witnesses. It's the third time O'Mara asked for a delay and the third time the judge denied it.

Zimmerman's brother, Robert Junior, says George is not a mythological monster as portrayed in the media. He says his brother is a nice and gentle man. But he and his family are still in hiding because of death threats.

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN JR.: We do not engage people very much and certainly not in any meaningful sense in public, because we have to keep a very low profile publicly. I'm happy to engage the press here because I'm safe here.

LEWIS: Five hundred prospective jurors have been called for this case. Jury selection is expected to last several weeks.

Russell Lewis, NPR News, Sanford, Florida.

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