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George Zimmerman Trial Begins: Here's What You Need to Know

June 8, 2013 - 6:00pm

The long-awaited trial of George Zimmerman, 29, the Sanford man accused of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012, begins Monday with jury selection.

To help readers get caught up with what's been happening over the past year, and where things will go from here, Sunshine State News offers this short pretrial catechism of Zimmerman's legal troubles, who the major players are, and what likelihood the state has of securing a conviction.

Who is George Zimmerman?

Zimmerman is a Sanford resident, and at the time of the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting was a neighborhood crime-watcher and aspiring law enforcement officer, studying for his associate of arts degree in criminal justice. He's a Virginia native, an Hispanic with some African-American ancestry. He is charged by the state of Florida with the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-Americanmale.

What happened the night of the shooting?

That's exactly what the jury will be asked to decide. But here's what's indisputable: Martin is dead, and Zimmerman killed him.

Martin, a North Miami native, was watching basketball at his fathers home in The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford the night of Feb. 26. During the halftime break, he walked to a gas station to pick up some candy and an iced tea.

Zimmerman, legally carrying a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, was patrolling in his SUV when he spotted Martin walking through the neighborhood on his return home from the gas station. Zimmerman called the police to report Martin, telling the dispatcher Martin looked like a real suspicious guy.

This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman told the dispatcher. "It's raining, and he's just walking around looking about. (The neighborhood reportedly is a magnet for burglaries, at least a few of which Zimmerman had been instrumental in thwarting.)

While on the phone with police, Zimmerman followed Martin on foot. What happened next is precisely what's in dispute.

Zimmerman has claimed that after losing sight of Martin, and being advised by the police dispatcher not to pursue him, he (Zimmerman) returned to his car, but was confronted by Martin, who demanded to know why Zimmerman was following him. Zimmerman claims 1) Martin initiated a physical alteration, 2) that in the course of the brawl Zimmerman's gun fell out of his pocket, 3) that Martin went for the gun and threatened to kill Zimmerman, but 4) that Zimmerman reached the gun first and shot Martin in self-defense.

The prosecution, along with lawyers representing Martin's family, instead claim that it was an overzealous Zimmerman who pursued Martin and initiated the altercation that left the boy dead .

Witness accounts, supported by audio recordings of some of their 911 calls, show that several cries for Help were made in the course of the Zimmerman-Martin altercation, but it isn't clear who made those cries. Zimmerman claims he (Zimmerman) cried for help, the witnesses have given conflicting testimony, and Martin's family have identified the cries as coming from Martin.

Why note Martin and Zimmerman's racial backgrounds?

Several commentators and activists have accused Zimmerman of having racially profiled Martin and of being a racist, charges Zimmerman's family vigorously denies, pointing to Zimmerman's own multiracial background, his prior history of mentoring black youth, and his 2010 activism on behalf of Sherman Ware, a black homeless man who had been beaten by the son of a Sanford police officer. Black friends and acquaintances of Zimmerman have defended his moral character.

What has Zimmerman been charged with?

In April 2012, prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, a decision that stunned several legal experts, who have opined that the facts alleged by the prosecution, even when read in the worst favorable light to Zimmerman, do not support such a charge.

What is second-degree murder?

In Florida, the most severe murder charge is first-degree murder, when one kills an innocent person with premeditation, or while committing any of a number of serious felonies.

Second-degree murder, also known traditionally as depraved-heart murder, is murder that isn't premeditated, but is committed with a depraved mind, while willfully engaging in an activity regardless of human life -- i.e., without any care for the lives one is endangering with one's actions.

A classic example of depraved-heart murder would be a death resulting from pranksters throwing rocks at cars from a freeway overpass. The rock-throwers may not intend to kill anyone, but they're wilfully and recklessly (i.e., "with a depraved heart or mind") engaging in activity that they know is likely to result in death or serious injury.

Many experts observe that second-degree murder is a hard charge to prove in a case like Zimmerman's. They suggest prosecutors would have been wiser to go for a lesser charge, like manslaughter, which is any unlawful killing (other than murder) by act or by negligence.

What does Stand Your Ground have to do with any of this?

Under Florida law, a victim has no duty to retreat from his attacker before defending himself; he may stand his ground, and may even resort to deadly force if he (the victim) reasonably believes that he is in danger of being killed or of suffering great bodily harm. Though Zimmerman originally invoked this defense to police, in April he waived his right to a Stand Your Ground hearing before a judge. Had the judge found in his favor, he could have avoided going to trial.

Zimmerman might still invoke Stand Your Ground, along with any other self-defense claim, during trial.

Is Trayvon Martin's character on trial?

It absolutely isn't.The only issue the jury will be deciding is whether Zimmerman killed Martin with a depraved mind.

Martin has no criminal record, but he had gotten in trouble in school for tardiness, vandalism, and for possessing marijuana. (He was serving his third suspension at the time he was killed.) Judge Debra Nelson, who is presiding over the trial, has said the defense cannot bring these facts up at the trial unless they become relevant.

Even if Zimmerman is found not-guilty, that will not mean that Martin acted criminally or immorally the night he was killed. Martin might have mistakenly believed he was being stalked by a would-be attacker and defended himself accordingly. Even if Zimmerman's claim -- that Martin reached for Zimmerman's gun and threatened to kill him -- was true, it could simply mean Martin was acting with deadly force because he believed he had to in order to defend himself from Zimmerman.

It is undisputed, by all sides, that Martin was not engaged in any criminal activity when Zimmerman spotted him walking around the neighborhood.

Can the jury find Zimmerman guilty of a lesser crime than murder?

A jury may always find a defendant guilty of a lesser-included crime than the one before it, so a jury could find Zimmerman guilty of some sort of manslaughter if it finds the prosecution failed to prove depraved-heart murder.

What happens Monday?

Jury selection begins. Six jurors will ultimately be chosen from a pool of about 500 persons. If all the jurors are in place by the end of the day, opening statements by the prosecution could begin as early as Tuesday.

Reach Eric Giunta at or at 954-235-9116.

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