More Than a Year After Trayvon’s Death, the Trial Begins

The trial of George Zimmerman starts this week against a backdrop of emotion and longstanding racial issues.

Posted: 06/10/2013 08:30 AM EDT
George Zimmerman, Mark O'Mara, Trayvon Martin

REPORTING FROM SANFORD, FLORIDA — It has been nearly 16 months since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in a gated community in this suburb of Orlando. And the trial of George Zimmerman is now beginning in a case that has become an international symbol of the lingering issues of race in the United States.

Even before the jury selection process gets underway on Monday, the trial of Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of the unarmed, 17-year-old high school student, has become a larger-than-life drama. It has been the focal point of emotional marches and rallies across the nation, even drawing comment from President Obama.

The reaction to this incident has been so dramatic, so emotional in large measure because the dead teenager was an African-American high school student who was carrying nothing more lethal than a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. His shooter was 28 years old, of white and Hispanic parentage and carrying a 9-millimeter handgun. And it was days before an arrest was made.

“It resonated with so many people because of the manner in which he died,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor of history at Ohio State University, speaking with BET.com. “The initial reports made it seem so patently unjust. And it seemed even more unjust when the shooter was essentially allowed to walk away.”

It is a case that exposed many Americans to the controversial law, known as Stand Your Ground, which gives legal permission to use deadly force if someone feels his or her safety is in imminent danger. After considering that as the focal point of his defense, Zimmerman decided to stand trial without invoking the Florida law.

The critical issue is whether lawyers for Zimmerman, a onetime neighborhood watch volunteer, can make a convincing case that he shot the young Trayvon Martin in self-defense, a position he has maintained. On the other hand, the parents of the dead teenager assert that their son was killed as an act of grotesque racial profiling.

For more than a year, the case of Trayvon Martin has resonated with a large segment of the American public. Many in the African-American community and beyond have portrayed the case as a modern-day Emmett Till scene, recalling the 14-year-old Chicago student who was brutally murdered in 1955 on a vacation trip to Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Of course, this is a far different case, in a different age with a host of technological advancements that were not even dreamt of in the 1950s. One such advance, the ability to analyze recordings with high technological precision, is an issue that could play a significant role in the Zimmerman trial.

Already, there has been skirmishing on whether recordings of emergency calls made by people at the shooting scene will be admitted and whether the screams they carried came from Trayvon or Zimmerman.

It is but one of a host of battles between the prosecution and Zimmerman’s defense team. In fact, Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, has been widely criticized for releasing to the media photos, documents and text messages that paint an unflattering portrait of the teenager, including information regarding a brief school suspension.

“The defense’s position has been simple,” Jeffries said. “They want to do whatever they can to make Trayvon Martin out to be the media stereotype of a Black teenage thug. They reason that, if they can do that, then it makes his death seem more justifiable in some people’s minds.”

The prosecutors and Trayvon’s parents argued that the information was irrelevant to the meeting between two strangers in a dark, gated community on a February night. Furthermore, the family charged that O’Mara was attempting to instill an image in the media that he hoped would seep into the minds of the members of the jury.

Prosecutors and Trayvon’s parents’ lawyer have made clear that Zimmerman has more than his share of uncomplimentary episodes. They point to an arrest in 2005 for resisting arrest with violence and assaulting a police officer, charges that were later reduced. There was also a motion for a restraining order filed by Zimmerman’s former fiancée who made allegations of domestic violence. 

In the end, Judge Debra Nelson of the Florida Circuit Court here in Sanford ruled that those images and documents of Trayvon Martin could not be used as part of the opening arguments in the trial.

But for now, there is the expectation of a lengthy jury selection process, which may well go on for weeks. Meanwhile, there is a community that has become a focal point for media from throughout the country. And there is also a nation that is eager to see precisely how this trial will proceed.

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 (Photo: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images)

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