News24

Zimmerman trial begins

2013-06-24 23:36

Sanford - The murder trial of a volunteer neighbourhood watchman who shot dead an unarmed black teenager, an incident that inflamed racial tensions across the United States, began on Monday.

George Zimmerman, 29, has pleaded not guilty, saying he shot Trayvon Martin, 17, in self-defence on the rainy night of 26 February 2012 after the teen knocked him to the ground and started bashing his head against the sidewalk.

Martin's supporters accuse Zimmerman of racial profiling, saying he ignored police advice and pursued Martin, who was unarmed and had no criminal record.

The case ignited widespread protests after police initially declined to charge Zimmerman, and sparked debate over Florida's "Stand Your Ground" gun law, which allows firing in self-defence even when fleeing is an option.

Prosecutor John Guy sent a jolt through the courtroom as he began his opening statement with words he said were uttered by Zimmerman in a call to a police dispatcher as he followed Martin through the gated community.

"Fucking punks," he said, quoting Zimmerman. He told jurors that the offensive language revealed the watchman's attitude toward the teen.

"When Zimmerman saw Trayvon, he didn't see a young man walking home. Instead, he profiled, pursued and killed Trayvon," he said, as Zimmerman, wearing a suit and tie, sat impassively in the courtroom.

"He profiled him as someone who was about to commit a crime in his neighbourhood."

Guy insisted Zimmerman's account of what happened that night would prove to be "a "tangled web of lies".

Tragic

But defence attorney Don West said the shooting, while tragic, was not murder.

"The evidence will show that there are no monsters here. It is a sad story," he said in his opening statement. "George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder."

The six-woman jury - five of whom are white - will decide the case, which is expected to take as long as six weeks.

Lead defence attorney Mark O'Mara insisted that there had been no racial motive in the shooting. Zimmerman is the son of an American father and a Peruvian mother.

"We're trying so hard in this case not to make it what everybody outside the courthouse wants it to be," O'Mara said. "We will argue the case is simply self-defence."

Zimmerman, 29, was on patrol in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, which had seen a string of recent robberies, when he spotted Martin walking in the rain in a hooded sweatshirt, called 911 and pursued the young man.

A violent confrontation ensued and Martin - who had been staying with a family friend in the neighbourhood and was returning from a convenience store after buying Skittles and an iced tea - was shot dead.

An initial decision by Florida investigators not to press charges set off widespread outrage, with Martin's supporters alleging racism.

NAACP

In protests held across the United States demonstrators wore hooded sweatshirts and waved packs of Skittles and iced tea.

Shortly before opening arguments got under way, Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, told reporters that her family was putting its faith in the hands of America's criminal justice system.

"I ask that you pray for me and my family. We believe that the evidence is overwhelming to hold Zimmerman accountable in Trayvon's killing," she said.

Acknowledging the passions aroused by the crime in Sanford, where more than 80% of its 53 000 residents are white, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People has called a meeting for later on Monday.

The discussion with community leaders will be held at a church in a historically black neighbourhood of the city north of Orlando, some 400km north of Miami.

"We want to give people an opportunity to talk about what happened, to voice any concerns, but also we are continuing to advocate the idea of non-violence throughout this whole process," said Seminole County NAACP president Clayton Turner.