Lawyers on both sides of the George Zimmerman trial Monday began what is expected to be a weekslong process of selecting a jury in the incendiary case in Sanford, Florida.
As potential jurors filled out questionnaires, Judge Debra Nelson denied a request from Zimmerman's attorneys to delay the start of the trial for several weeks on grounds they needed more time to prepare.
His attorneys declined to ask for a change of venue in the case, suggesting they are confident they can find impartial jurors in the area despite the wall-to-wall media coverage that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's killing attracted last year.
But his brother, Robert Zimmerman, didn't sound convinced. "We're obviously concerned about that," he told reporters Monday when asked if he believed George Zimmerman could get a fair trial.
Zimmerman, out on $1 million bond and in hiding for much of the past year, is charged with second-degree murder for killing the unarmed teen in a confrontation in his gated community, where Zimmerman acted as a volunteer watchman.
Prosecutors argue that Zimmerman racially profiled, followed and then shot Martin. Zimmerman's lawyers counter that their client was attacked by Martin and that he acted in self-defense.
Defense lawyer Jose Baez, who represented Casey Anthony in her high-profile trial in Orlando in 2011, said jury selection in this trial will be especially complicated because of the case's racial overtones. (Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic; Martin was black.)
Martin's family hinted at the potential complications in a statement released Monday morning.
"Trayvon's life was taken unnecessarily and tragically, but we call upon the community to be peaceful. We have placed our faith in the justice system and ask that the community do the same," the family wrote.
Generally, defense lawyers would be more likely than prosecutors to want to select minorities for a jury, since, on average, African-American and Hispanic people express more skepticism of law enforcement than white people, according to Baez. But in this case, Zimmerman's defense lawyers will want to pack the jury with white "gun-toting Republicans" who would be amenable to their argument that their client shot and killed the unarmed Martin in self-defense, Baez said.
These jurors might also be more convinced by the argument that local police made the right decision not to arrest or charge Zimmerman in the shooting initially.
"It's a very unique case in that respect, where the general rules that a lot of lawyers use are just going be absolutely flipped upside down," Baez said. "Because it is such a racially charged case, I think that the clear line is going to be drawn here between African-American jurors and Caucasian and Hispanic jurors."
But the defense team will have to be very careful in its quest to find conservative jurors more amenable to the self-defense argument. Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who is presiding over the televised trial in the Seminole County Courthouse, will most likely be vigilant to make sure neither side is excluding jurors based on their race, which is illegal under a 1985 Supreme Court decision.
"I think this judge is fully aware of the racial tensions involved and is going to be on high alert," Baez said. If the defense team moves to dismiss an African-American juror during the peremptory strike phase of jury selection, for example, the judge could challenge it to provide a reason for the move. If the team can't come up with a good reason (for example, that the juror attended a rally in support of Trayvon Martin), the judge will assume the attorneys wanted to dismiss the juror for racial reasons and override their preference.
Nelson has ruled that the pool of 500 potential jurors will be kept anonymous during the selection process. It's possible she could order them sequestered during the trial, which is what happened to the jurors in the Anthony case. Nelson rejected the defense's request to sequester them during jury selection.
The pool will shrink rapidly as jurors can make the case that sitting on a jury for weeks would be a hardship. After that process winnows down the lot, the attorneys will go through and disqualify anyone with a personal connection to the case. Both sides will be on the lookout for jurors who have stated their support for either Zimmerman or Martin on social media sites, or been involved in activism around the case. The attorneys may also have potential jurors fill out questionnaires gauging their beliefs about gun control, law enforcement, race and other issues.
Yahoo's Jason Sickles contributed reporting.