Zimmerman murder trial: the case fuelling US race debate

Trial of Florida 'vigilante' accused of killing Trayvon Martin opens with expletives and bad joke

(Image credit: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images)

THE MURDER trial that reignited debate about race relations in America has begun in earnest this week, with George Zimmerman (above) standing accused of murdering unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. Prosecutors and defence lawyers delivered their long-awaited opening statements to an all-female jury of six on Monday. So what has happened since and why has the trial sparked so much debate around race? A question of self-defence: Neither prosecutors nor defence lawyers dispute that Zimmerman, 29, shot Martin,17, in the chest with a 9mm handgun in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012, nor that the teenager died at the scene. Prosecutors describe Zimmerman, a Florida neighbourhood watchman, as a trigger-happy vigilante who presumed Martin was "up to no good". Zimmerman, who faces at least 25 years in jail if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, claiming he was acting in self-defence after Martin attacked him. Jokes and expletives: The trial began with jokes and expletives from attorneys. Prosecutor John Guy's first words "may have raised a few eyebrows", reported CNN. He said: "Good morning. ‘F*****g punks, these a******s all get away.’ These were the words in this grown man’s mouth as he followed this boy that he didn't know. Those were his words, not mine." Meanwhile, defence attorney Don West failed to win a laugh with a bad knock-knock joke: "Knock knock. Who's there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? Good, you're on the jury." He later apologised. 'Star witness': So far nine witnesses have testified, including a crime scene technician, a police sergeant, and a resident who may have seen part of the fatal confrontation. The prosecution's "star witness" is said to be a female friend of Martin’s called Rachel, who was on the phone to him moments before he was killed. In previous written testimony, she described him as scared and trying to get away from a man before the line went dead. Graphic images: Yesterday jurors were shown graphic photographs of the murdered teenager, including a close-up of his face and a bloody bullet hole in his chest. USA Today said the courtroom was brought to "a solemn still" and some jurors "looked noticeably uncomfortable". Martin’s father left the courtroom as the photographs were shown, while his mother remained in her seat but looked away. The impact on race relations: Martin's death sparked weeks of protests by thousands in central Florida and elsewhere, partly because Zimmerman was freed without charge on the night of the shooting. Many questioned whether the police would have done the same if Zimmerman had have been black or Martin white. According to the New York Times, there have been decades of animosity between black residents and the Police Department in Sanford. "Those feelings have been there long before," explained Velma Williams, the city’s only black commissioner. "The Trayvon Martin case just happened to bring it to a boiling point." The Tampa Bay Times describes it as the "Trial of the Moment", which is shaping up to be "a test of both criminal justice and modern-day race relations".

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