George Zimmerman Jury Selection Begins as Both Sides Cite Death Threats

PHOTO: George Zimmerman stands as the judge enters the courtroom in Seminole circuit court for a pretrial hearing, in Sanford, Fla., June 8, 2013./Trayvon Martin, 17, was fatally shot by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman.
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The George Zimmerman murder trial begin in a Florida courtroom today, but instead of the tension and anger that has surrounded the case since Trayvon Martin was killed last year, it was marked by tedium, with lawyers laboriously questioning potential jurors.

Lawyers for Zimmerman and the prosecution grilled a handful of the first 100 people in a pool that could total 500 people in an effort to find an unbiased batch of six jurors and four alternates to try the case.

Zimmerman, 29, is charged with murdering Martin, 17, on Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman, a captain in Sanford's neighborhood watch, claims he shot Martin in self defense as the two struggled over his gun after Zimmerman reported a suspicious person to Sanford police and got out of his car to see where Martin went.

The case, which has been tinged with racial overtones, has prompted national protests on Martin's behalf and fundraising to help Zimmerman.

At the start of the hearing, Martin's parents issued a statement calling for calm.

"We are relieved that the start of the trial is here with jury selection as we seek justice for our son Trayvon...we ask the community continue to stay peaceful as we place our faith in the justice system," the parents said.

The intensity surrounding the case was illustrated by both sides noting that they have received death threats.

"We have an issue with security," Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton said. "We have decided that we would not wear bullet proof vests. Are we taking a chance with our lives? Yes, we certainly are, but we're putting our faith in God."

The Martin family entered the courtroom stoically, but Fulton's composure slipped and she teared up as she left the courtroom during an early break.

Zimmerman's brother Robert Zimmerman also mentioned death threats his family has received when he addressed the court in the morning. He told reporters that it was not a guarantee that his older brother would take the stand in his own defense because of the "consistent" statements he has already made to law enforcement

The day's hearing was marked by frequent sidebars at the bench with Judge Debra Nelson which limited the number of jurors seen today. The judge has ruled that the identity of the jurors would be kept anonymous, so each was addressed by a combination of number and a letter.

While defense lawyers had questioned whether it would be possible to find 10 people who had not heard of the case, a woman identified at B-29 said she had moved to the area several months ago and was unaware of the controversial case. When she saw the crowd around the courthouse upon her arrival this morning she thought there must be a traffic problem. She believed that Trayvon Martin was 12 or 13.

Another woman told the prosecutor she did not watch the cable TV reports on the case. When he sounded a bit skeptical, she said her TV operated with an antenna, not cable.

A man identified as B-30 said he had no opinion on the case, but that his girlfriend did, saying that it was her belief that Zimmerman should have stayed in his car and "that would have alleviated everything."

Zimmerman's lawyer, Mark O'Mara, has estimated it could take two to three weeks to seat a jury.

The demographic make-up of the jury may be more important than their views, legal experts say.

If the Zimmerman legal team can pack the Seminole County, Fla., jury with white, conservative, pro-conviction jurors, they could beat the 2nd degree murder charge, says Jose Baez, who successfully defended Casey Anthony in 2011.

Catch Up on the George Zimmerman Case

"Each side will try to stack the deck in their favor," said Baez. "It's going to be an issue of what type of jurors will sit in the judgment of George Zimmerman. "What political backgrounds do they come from? What are their views on racism? What are their views on gun control? All of these important modern issues that we're facing ... and that's what jury selection will be about in this case."

The defense's case hinges on convincing a jury that the black Florida teenager attacked the white, Hispanic former neighborhood watch captain so viciously, he feared for his life, and used deadly force to defend himself.

O'Mara has repeated numerous times that this is "not about civil rights but is a self-defense case."

Florida's Stand Your Ground law allows an individual to justifiably use force in self defense, without having to retreat, if they believe they are being unlawfully threatened. Experts speculate one reason his legal team decided to take Zimmerman's fate out of Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson's hands and leave the decision up to a Seminole County jury is because they believe the county demographics favor them.

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The majority white, Republican-leaning Florida county has been simmering with racial tension from this case that Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump calls the "civil rights case of the new century" for nearly 16 months. But there is also a substantial African-American community in the county, and local court observers say the jury pool should be diverse.

"It became a civil rights matter the night the Sanford Police made a decision not to arrest the killer of an unarmed teenager," Crump told ABC News. "It doesn't matter if he's black, white, brown or red. You cannot have people killing unarmed teenagers and allowed to go home and sleep in their bed at night. Had Trayvon Martin shot an unarmed George Zimmerman, he would have been arrested day one, hour one, moment one. He could have said stand your ground, he could have said self-defense, he could have said whatever he wanted to say, he was going to be arrested that night."

Crump's assertion is echoed by many in the African-American community. Prosecutors are expected to try to load the jury with people who would be sympathetic to Trayvon Martin, particularly African-Americans according to Baez.

The case has stirred fierce passions on both sides.

Within days of Martin's death a Change.org petition calling for Zimmerman's arrest was posted. Within 10 days the petition had more than 200,000 signatures, growing at times at a rate of 10,000 signatures an hour. It soon became the fastest growing petition in internet history.

But Zimmerman's cause, that he was unjustly arrested has already channeled support to his legal fund which has raised nearly $400,000 from supporters both local and nationwide since his arrest.

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