The racially charged trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin began in a Florida courtroom today with an emotional statement by Martin's mother and the judge sending Zimmerman's family out of the courtroom.
The case that renewed America's long, bitter and polarizing debate about race and guns opened today in Sanford, Fla., 16 months after Martin was shot dead by Zimmerman.
The drama began before opening statements could be introduced. On her way into court, Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, gave a statement.
"I'm here today as Trayvon Martin's mom as I have been every day. I will be attending every day to get justice for my son," Fulton said moments before she and Martin's father entered the court. "I ask that you pray for me and my family because I don't want any other mother to have to experience what I am going through now."
Before prosecutors began with their opening statements, a lawyer for the family, Benjamin Crump, summed up the arguments prosecutors may make.
"We think this is a simple case. There are two important facts. Number one, George Zimmerman was a grown man with a gun. And number two, Trayvon Martin was a minor who had no blood on his hands." Crump said.
Once inside the courtroom, the families of Martin and Zimmerman settled into seats, but Judge Debra Nelson ordered Zimmerman's family to leave the room since they are on a list of possible witnesses who might be called.
Martin's parents were allowed to stay and watch the proceedings.
According to Florida law, a victim's family can stay inside a courtroom and watch the proceedings. However, no such rule covers family rights for the accused.
Crump was also kicked out of court.
Prosecutors will begin opening statements in the second-degree murder trial against Zimmerman by trying to paint the former neighborhood watch captain as a "wannabe cop" who over-stepped his role in the community. They will argue that he profiled, followed and, ultimately, killed a 17-year-old high school student who was innocently walking to his father's girlfriend's home after leaving a convenience store.
Zimmerman's team might counter by highlighting the medical reports, photographs and relatively "consistent" statements he made to police immediately after the shooting that Martin aggressively confronted him and banged his head on the sidewalk several times and that the two struggled over Zimmerman's gun until he pulled the trigger. They will assert he killed the teen while trying to defend his own life.
"To prove second-degree murder, prosecutors must prove that Zimmerman was filled with ill-will, hatred or spite," said criminal defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh, who has no connection to the case. "Jurors can consider a lesser charge of manslaughter if they think what Zimmerman did was unlawful but didn't contain those necessary elements."
For the next two to four weeks, the jury might hear from neighbors who saw or heard some kinds of struggle between both men Feb. 26, 2012, and called 911 from help. But none of the potential witnesses saw who initiated the altercation, nor intervened even when one of the two men cried out for help. Significant Numbers in George Zimmerman case
Who was howling for help in those 911 tapes might become one of the most important questions to be weighed by the jury of six woman. They will have to decide for themselves after Circuit Judge Debra Nelson banned the testimony of two audio experts who said they could hear Martin begging for his life on those tapes.
After opening statements, the state is expected to begin calling witnesses to the stand. Among those who might eventually testify is a young woman known as W8 who was on the phone with Martin five minutes before he was shot and said the teen was unnerved by and afraid of Zimmerman.
A jury might also eventually watch a re-enactment video filmed by police of a bandaged Zimmerman in the days after the shooting recounting his story to skeptical investigators. Zimmerman gave several video and audio statements to police in the days after the shooting, and his legal team says that might be the reason he never takes the stand in this case.
"At a minimum, what's at stake is a potential life sentence for [Zimmerman], who believes, as do his supporters, that he was the victim, and not Trayvon," Eiglarsh, the attorney, said. "But because of the long history of racial tension in Sanford, Florida, there are many people who believe that the only verdict that speaks the truth, the only justice, is guilty."
The case has gripped and divided the central Florida community of Sanford from the beginning. The Seminole County courthouse instituted a lottery for the public interested in watching the case, and set up protest areas for those looking to vocalize their opinion. But only a handful of protesters showed up during the nine-day jury selection.
The six jurors and four alternates who will hear opening statements are now isolated, away from their homes, with minimal contact with family and friends until the trial ends. Timeline of George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin Case
Both sides say sequestration will help eliminate juror exposure to outside influence as this controversial case kicks off. It's one of the few areas of agreement between all sides.