Trayvon Martin killing trial begins

2013-06-24 09:04

Sanford - Opening arguments will be made on Monday in the US trial of a neighbourhood watchman who shot dead an unarmed black teenager in an incident that sparked racially-charged controversy.

A jury of six women will decide the fate of George Zimmerman, aged 29, who is charged with second-degree murder for killing Trayvon Martin as the 17-year-old walked through a gated Florida community on 26 February 2012.

Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty, denying any racial motive and saying he shot Martin in self-defence after the teenager wrestled him to the ground and pounded his head against the sidewalk.

The incident made national news and set off debate about race, equal justice and the state's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows the use of firearms in self-defence even when it is possible to flee.

Protests were held in several US cities against what many saw as a racial bias in the crime - and in the police's initial decision to release Zimmerman after questioning without pressing charges.

"This case has always been about equal justice," Martin's family said in a statement. "Equal justice under the law is not a black value or a white value. It's an American value."

Skittles and iced tea

"We firmly believe that when these jurors see the overwhelming evidence that will be put before them in the coming weeks, they will find George Zimmerman guilty of murder on the night in question."

Wearing a hooded sweatshirt that became a protest symbol after his death, Martin, carrying a pack of Skittles and an iced tea, was on his way to meet his father at a friend's house when the confrontation occurred.

Zimmerman, a volunteer night watchman whose father is white and whose mother is Peruvian, reported Martin to police in a 911 call in which the dispatcher told him not to follow the teenager.

Police in the central Florida city of Sanford initially released Zimmerman, saying he acted in line with the "stand your ground" rules.

But Zimmerman was later arrested and faces life in prison if convicted. In the end, he opted not to base his defence on the "Stand Your Ground" law and is instead mounting a traditional self-defence case.

Showing photos as evidence, he argues Martin attacked him and left him with a bloodied head.

Mothers on jury

Five of the women on the jury are white, with the sixth described as a minority, presumably Hispanic, by local media following a two-week selection process involving lawyers, prosecutors and the presiding judge, Debra Nelson.

Another four people - including two men - were picked to act as substitute jurors.

The women, who have not been identified but reportedly consist mostly of mothers who are familiar with Florida's firearms law, will be sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks.

"I don't believe that an all-female jury favours one side or the other," said Mark Eiglarsh, adjunct law professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

"An argument can be made that women are more sympathetic and emotional. Therefore, they will identify with the victim more," said the criminal defence attorney and former prosecutor.

"However, who in this case is the victim has yet to be determined."

Prosecution likely to benefit

Stewart D'Alessio, a criminal justice professor at Florida International University, said prosecutors would "attempt to generate sympathy for the teenage victim, particularly focusing on his youthfulness and how his life was cut short".

The all-female makeup of the jury is likely to benefit the prosecution, he added.

"Men are not only more likely to own weapons, they are also more likely to feel that deadly force is justifiable in certain circumstances," he said.

Women, meanwhile, "are probably going to be more receptive to the argument that racial animosity might have motivated the defendant to shoot and kill the victim".