Opening statements begin in Zimmerman murder trial

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ORLANDO -- Sixteen months after a fateful confrontation on a rainy night in Florida left an unarmed teenager dead at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer, the murder trial of George Zimmerman begins with opening statements Monday morning.

The case, which touches the charged third rails of race and gun issues, is expected to last two to four weeks before deliberations by a six-person jury begin. Zimmerman could face life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.

After months of fiery charges and counterpunches, the major players are being careful about what they say as the arena has shifted from the media to the courtroom in Sanford, Fla.

George Zimmerman, seen here in court with his defense counsel, Don West, left, and Mark O'Mara, is charged with second-degree murder in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. (Gary W. Green / Orlando Sentinel / June 19, 2013)

“What I do think we have, and I’m very happy with this, is six jurors who have told us that they’ll be fair and impartial,” Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, said last week after the all-female jury had been chosen after nine days of questioning, or voir dire.

The prosecution has not commented. But the family of Trayvon Martin, 17, whom Zimmerman shot to death, said it also expected a fair and impartial hearing on the case, which prompted national demonstrations by civil rights leaders and comments from top officials, including President Obama.

“With the makeup of this jury, the question of whether every American can get equal justice regardless of who serves on their jury panel will be answered,” the family and its legal team said in a statement. “Equal justice under the law is not a black value or a white value.”

The core of the case will be reflected in the opening statements.

Prosecutors will try to paint Zimmerman, 29, as an eager vigilante and police wannabe who was driving in a gated Sanford community on Feb. 26, 2012, when he saw Martin walking in the rain, wearing a hoodie sweatshirt. The teenager, who was black, was returning to the home of his father’s fiancee after visiting a convenience store, where he had purchased candy and an iced tea.

Suspicious, Zimmerman called the town police to report seeing Martin and told the operator he was following the youth. The operator replied that there was no need for Zimmerman to do that. After the call ended, Zimmerman and Martin had a violent confrontation that ended with Zimmerman firing his licensed 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun and killing the unarmed teenager. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense.

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