SANFORD, Fla. — Jurors in a racially charged Florida murder trial heard sharply contrasting versions on Monday of who was the aggressor in a struggle that ended with the shooting death last year of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a volunteer neighborhood watchman.
In a fiery opening statement in a Seminole County courtroom, Assistant State Attorney John Guy said evidence would show that the accused murderer, George Zimmerman, had spun “a tangled web of lies” about the shooting in February 2012 in the central Florida town of Sanford.
The killing triggered nationwide protests because Zimmerman was not immediately arrested and walked free for six weeks, after claiming he acted in accordance with Florida’s self-defense laws when Martin attacked him.
As the trial opened in earnest after two weeks of jury selection and evidentiary rulings, the prosecutor opened by bluntly quoting from Zimmerman’s call to a police dispatcher after first spotting Martin.
“F—-ing punks. These a—holes, they always get away,” Guy repeated. Guy told the jury those were the “hate-filled words he used to describe a total stranger.”
In the defense’s opening statement Zimmerman’s lawyer, Don West, sought to paint a different picture saying Zimmerman was “viciously attacked” by the teen.
“There are no monsters here,” West said, contesting Guy’s description of his client as a would-be cop who was trained in martial arts and kick boxing and used “hate-filled” speech to describe an innocent young man to police dispatcher.
Zimmerman, who is out on bail and appeared in court wearing a charcoal gray suit, showed no emotion as he stared straight ahead and away from the prosecutor.
The parents of both Zimmerman and Martin were seated on different sides of the courtroom, although Zimmerman’s parents were instructed to leave before the jury entered after the prosecution said they might be called as witnesses.
Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, later left the courtroom when West played the jury a tape of a 911 call in which screams can be heard before the fatal shot. “To sit there and hear her child’s final moments was very tough,” said Daryl Parks, a lawyer for the Martin family.
Zimmerman, 29 and part Hispanic, was the neighborhood watch captain in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford at the time of the killing on Feb. 26, 2012. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge of second-degree murder and could face life imprisonment if convicted.
Martin, 17, was a student at a Miami-area high school and a guest of one of the homeowners in the Retreat at Twin Lakes.
He was walking back to the residence after buying snacks at a nearby convenience store when he was shot in the chest during a confrontation with Zimmerman.
Much of what happened during Martin’s fatal encounter with Zimmerman is still a mystery. Neighbors who witnessed the altercation, albeit on a rainy night, are expected to testify during the trial.
Guy portrayed Zimmerman as a man with a concealed weapon who committed a vigilante-style killing, not a dutiful watch guard on alert for signs of suspicious activity after a string of robberies in his neighborhood.
“George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had too. He shot him for the worst of all reasons, because he wanted too,” said Guy, the prosecutor, during a 33 minute-long opening statement.
Guy also told the jury there was “irrefutable physical evidence” that showed Zimmerman was lying when he told police that Martin attacked him. No blood or DNA from Zimmerman was found on Martin’s hands or elsewhere on his body or clothing, he said. That is despite Zimmerman’s claims that Martin punched him to the ground and covered his bleeding, broken nose with his bare hands as he pounded his head into the ground.
In his 2 -1/2 hour statement to the jury, the defense attorney said a witness, who he identified as a homeowner near the site of the Feb. 26 altercation, would testify about a man clad in the color of the clothing Martin “mounting” a man on the ground and “basically beating him senseless.”
West said contrary to what has often been said about the case, Martin was not unarmed. “Trayvon Martin armed himself with the concrete sidewalk and used it to smash George Zimmerman’s head … That is a deadly weapon.”
Six jurors, all women, were selected last week to hear the racially charged murder case against Zimmerman. They will be sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last two to four weeks.
The case triggered civil rights protests and debates about alleged treatment of blacks as second-class citizens under the U.S. justice system, since Zimmerman was initially allowed to kill with apparent impunity.
There is a high bar for the prosecution in a case that will center on Florida’s aggressive self-defense laws and the fact that there were no apparent witnesses to the actual shooting.
Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which was approved in 2005 and has since been copied by about 30 other states, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it is possible.