A SELF-appointed neighbourhood watch leader who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager he said he saw loitering in a Florida housing development goes on trial for murder today, 16 months after the killing brought race relations and America’s gun laws into the spotlight.
George Zimmerman, 29, faces at least 25 years in jail if he is convicted of the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old schoolboy who was returning to the home of his father’s friend carrying a soft drink and sweets he had just bought at a local shop.
The trial, which could last up to six weeks, and which begins today in the central Florida town of Sanford with jury selection, will examine the night of 26 February, 2012, when Zimmerman called police to report “a suspicious male” in the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community.
Zimmerman, who denies murder on the grounds of self-defence, will insist that Mr Martin, who was under suspension from his Miami school for possession of drugs paraphernalia, was the aggressor. He has said he fired the single shot from his 9mm pistol in fear of his life with Mr Martin, who was taller and heavier, on top of him and bashing his head on to a pavement after breaking his nose with a punch.
State attorney Bernie de la Rionda, however, will portray Zimmerman, who is of mixed Caucasian-Hispanic race, as an officious law enforcement-obsessed vigilante who pursued and confronted Mr Martin despite being told not to by police.
The case caused controversy and sparked racial tensions last year because Zimmerman was initially released without charge by the Sanford Police Department, who accepted his claim of self-defence.
It was only after a series of civil rights protests in Florida and elsewhere that the state’s governor Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to investigate. Zimmerman was arrested and charged with murder six weeks after the shooting, and has been in hiding on $1 million bail for more than a year.
“This is one of the most polarising cases Florida has seen in recent memory,” said Dr Vibert White, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida and an expert in African-American studies who has lectured on the case.
“There’s not animosity but there is concern that justice will prevail [because] it’s been common over the last 50 years for people who have murdered African-Americans to have gotten off,” he said.
Areas have been set aside outside the courthouse to allow for demonstrators, and in a further attempt to ease tensions, pastors from local churches will be in the courtroom to report and explain developments to the community.