SANFORD, Fla. – George Zimmerman's lead attorney will be walking a fine line as he tries to convince jurors that his client didn't murder Trayvon Martin: He needs to show why Zimmerman felt threatened by the African-American teenager while avoiding the appearance that either he or his client is racist.
Because there is no dispute that Zimmerman shot Martin, 17, during a fight on a rainy night in February 2012, Mark O'Mara must convince the jury that Zimmerman pulled his 9 mm handgun and fired a bullet into the Miami-area high school student's chest because he feared for his life and that the fear was caused by Martin's actions, not his race.
Jury selection begins Monday in the second-degree murder trial, which is expected to last about six weeks. Martin's killing drew worldwide attention as it sparked a national debate about race, equal justice under the law and gun control. If convicted, Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, could get a life sentence.
Under Florida law, Zimmerman, 29, could lawfully shoot Martin in self-defense if it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
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."
The challenge for prosecutors trying to get a second-degree murder conviction, meanwhile, is that they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that while Zimmerman's actions weren't premeditated, they demonstrated a "depraved mind" that didn't consider the threat his actions had toward human life.
McClean and another Orlando defense attorney, David Hill, predicted that prosecutors will attack Zimmerman, who was employed at a mortgage risk management firm, as a frustrated, would-be police officer who had a chip on his shoulder. Zimmerman had studied criminal justice at a community college and had volunteered to run his community's neighborhood watch program.
"The state's narrative is going to be ... Zimmerman was a powerful neighborhood watchman, a wannabe officer who liked to use his authority," McCLean said.
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 911, 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.
An autopsy showed Martin was shot through the heart at close range. Prosecutors claim Zimmerman was racially profiling Martin, and Martin's divorced parents have said the neighborhood watch captain was the aggressor in the fight.
"Trayvon Martin did not have a gun. Trayvon Martin did not get out of his car to chase anybody," said Benjamin Crump, the parents' attorney. "Trayvon Martin did not shoot and kill anybody."
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 911 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 Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has yet to rule on his concerns.
For days, the Trayvon Martin shooting received no attention beyond some small items in the local news media. Sanford police, after questioning Zimmerman, let him go and local prosecutors chose not to press charges right away.
That changed after Martin's parents hired 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 Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to get their support.
Those events sparked protests in Sanford and around the country, with thousands demanding that Zimmerman be prosecuted. Gov. Rick Scott appointed State Attorney Angela B. Corey from the nearby Jacksonville district to re-examine the case.
Forty-four days after Martin's death, Corey charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder and had him arrested. For the past year, Zimmerman has been free on $1 million bond and living in seclusion. His defense is being paid by private contributions through a website O'Mara set up.
Outside attorneys say the challenge for O'Mara and his colleagues will be to divorce the case's facts from the larger context of what the shooting symbolizes to some communities.
"You have to take away the controversial stuff and make it just about what Zimmerman thought, that he was scared and feared for his life," Hill said.
If his pre-trial statements are any indication, that's exactly what O'Mara will do. 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.
"This case, in my opinion and in my view of the facts, is a clear, straightforward self-defense case based upon the forensic evidence," O'Mara said. "With that as a premise, this case has taken on a significance well beyond the facts."
Nelson has already ruled that defense attorneys won't be able to mention Martin's past marijuana use, suspension from school and past fighting during opening statements, although Nelson left open the possibility that the defense could try again later during the trial if it could show relevance. Such a situation could arise if prosecutors attempt to portray Martin as an angelic kid.
"The trial itself is like a symphony," O'Mara said in a recent interview. "You play with those other people around you in the proper way to present the evidence. If they go down a certain path, then we may have to go down a certain path."
Jurors will want to hear from Zimmerman, but his attorneys should wait to see how their case unfolds before putting him on the stand, McClean said. It would be helpful for Zimmerman to get on the witness stand to recount his state of mind, Hill said.
"I can't see how he doesn't," Hill said. "He's the only one who can say `I was scared for my life and here's what happened."'
Another crucial witness will be a Miami-area female friend of Martin's who was talking to the teen by cellphone as he was walking through the Retreat at Twin Lakes followed by Zimmerman. She says Martin told her during that conversation that someone was following him and that she also heard a brief exchange between him and someone before the phone was cut off. Martin was shot shortly afterward. But O'Mara already has called into question her credibility, accusing her of lying about missing Martin's funeral because she was in the hospital.
O'Mara said he doubts he will find six jurors and four alternates who haven't heard about the case but his goal is to find jurors who haven't formed opinions. The judge ruled that potential jurors' identities will stay anonymous in an effort to protect them from harassment and public pressure during the trial. She rejected a defense request to sequester the jury candidates during jury selection.
The defense will have a better chance with the jury if its members are older, more conservative citizens who believe in the right to bear arms, said both Hill and McCLean.
"If there are African-Americans on the jury, they are going to sympathize with Trayvon Martin more," McClean said.
Prosecutors have refused to comment about the case outside the courtroom, but lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda indicated at a recent hearing he was well aware of the pressures the case's high profile is putting on all parties involved. Reporters from national media groups are attending the trial, and areas outside the courthouse have been designated for expected protests.
"We want to make sure this trial is tried in a courtroom and not outside a courtroom," de la Rionda said.