SANFORD, Fla. - Four potential jurors spent Monday afternoon being questioned as the trial of George Zimmerman got under way near Orlando, though no jurors had been chosen by the day’s end.
Court started Monday with 100 prospective jurors being asked to fill out a questionnaire. Copies were made for the judge and lawyers for both sides and they went through them.
Of those 100, 21 were selected to be questioned on Tuesday, 13 women and eight men.
The trial will resume Tuesday at 9 a.m. Watch it live on WFTV.com!
Zimmerman's attorneys will have to convince jurors that he shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year because he feared for his life. Zimmerman is not disputing that he shot the teen during a fight in a gated community.
Zimmerman often appeared to be uncomfortable in court, looking downward when prospective jurors were asked about the night of the shooting.
Robert Zimmerman Jr. said his brother is not the monster some think he is.
“George is a real person,” he said. “He's a sensitive person, he's generous, very likeable.”
The defense has hired Texas attorney Robert Hirschhorn, a nationally recognized expert in the field of jury selection.
Hirschhorn helped well-known defense attorney Roy Black win an acquittal in the sexual assault trial of William Kennedy Smith in 1991.
WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said it's becoming clearer why the defense is asking for so many contributions to the Zimmerman defense fund. He said it’s because they are hiring the gold standard of experts for the case.
Martin's father told reporters he's looking for a "fair and impartial trial."
“We are relieved that the start of the trial is here with the jury selection as we seek justice for our son, Trayvon,” said Martin’s father, Tracy Martin. “And we also seek a fair and impartial trial. We ask that the community continue to stay peaceful as we place our faith in a justice system.”
Zimmerman's parents were not in court, but his wife, Shellie, was. His brother took questions from reporters in the morning.
Zimmerman's brother said his family is confident prosecutors won't meet the burden of proving the neighborhood watch volunteer was guilty of murder. He calls the charge "improper" and said charges were filed for political reasons.
“As a family, we are very confident,” he said. “(The) state won't prove burden. Its two-fold burden. backs into our confidence in the legal team. Don West has been extraordinary, O'Mara's secret weapon.”
In her first order of business, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson denied a request by O'Mara to delay the trial because he needed several more weeks to prepare.
The trial was taking place 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 in April 2012.
Other demonstrations were held around the United States, and the case drew worldwide attention as it fanned a debate about race, equal justice under the law and gun control.
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, with just a little more than a dozen protesters showing up. They included relatives of Oscar Grant, a man who was fatally shot by an Oakland, Calif., police officer in 2009, and members of a Communist Party group.
Wearing a hoodie similar to the one Martin had on when he was shot, Noche Diaz, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and about 10 other party activists carried placards that said "We Say No More." Diaz said it was important for protesters to have a presence at the trial's start since "if people waited in the first place, there wouldn't be a trial."
O'Mara blamed prosecutors for a delay in turning over evidence and said he needed time to interview an attorney for Martin's family. "We're not fully ready and need more time," O'Mara said.
Prosecutors opposed the request for a delay.
Potential jurors began the day by filling out a confidential questionnaire.
There is no dispute Zimmerman shot an unarmed 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 said 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.
His lead attorney, Mark 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," he said.
McClean and another Orlando defense attorney, David Hill, predicted prosecutors will attack Zimmerman as a frustrated, would-be police officer. 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 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 police, 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 police 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 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.
Zimmerman's brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., said his family was confident that prosecutors wouldn't meet the burden of proving the neighborhood watch volunteer was guilty of murder. He called the charge "improper" and said charges were filed for political reasons.
"You don't charge in this country simply to assuage the concerns of masses," said Robert Zimmerman Jr. "Unfortunately, a political calculation was made centered around the politics of race and the law was defiled."
Martin's father, Tracy Martin, expressed relief that the trial was starting.
"We seek a fair and impartial trial," he told reporters Monday. "We ask that the community continue to stay peaceful as we place our faith in the justice system."
- Follow Kathi Belich on Twitter at @KBelichWFTV for live updates from the scene.