NEW YORK — Was it murder when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin? Or was it self-defense?
That was the question 16 months ago, after Zimmerman pulled a handgun from his waistband and shot Martin once in the chest as they fought in the darkness.
It was the question the initial police investigation and the first prosecutor wrestled with, an investigation shadowed by Florida’s expansive law on self-defense — Stand Your Ground — which, if imposed, could have classified the shooting as justified.
And it remains the question now, as potential jurors file into the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Fla., on Monday at the start of Zimmerman’s trial on charges of second-degree murder. The process is likely to take a few weeks.
Because no one saw the fight unfold, the case may come down to which version of events the jury finds more believable: Zimmerman’s assertion that he was attacked by Martin, or an account by a young woman who was talking to the victim on the phone moments before he was killed.
The young woman has said Martin sounded scared on the line. She said he asked Zimmerman why he was following him before the struggle started, and the call ended abruptly.
The credibility of both will be examined closely, and that of each has already taken a hit. Last June, the court found that Zimmerman and his wife had lied to the court about their finances. The young woman said she had been unable to attend Martin’s funeral because she had gone to a hospital, but it came out at a recent hearing that no medical records existed to support her statement.
At trial, prosecutors will assert that Zimmerman was a reckless vigilante who provoked the fatal confrontation by profiling Martin, a black 17-year-old who was minding his own business.
Defense lawyers will portray Zimmerman as a dutiful watchman for a condominium development who spied an unfamiliar young man with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up, began to follow him, and wound up shooting him dead out of fear that he himself would be killed.
The general outcry and the delay in charging Zimmerman until six weeks after the shooting helped lead to the firing of the Sanford police chief; the case’s reassignment to a special prosecutor, Angela B. Corey, who is the state attorney based in Jacksonville; and the filing of second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman.
But the jurors will be ordered to set aside the furor and focus on evidence.
That night, a high school student faced off against a gun-wielding volunteer guardian of the neighborhood. Minutes later, Zimmerman was on his back, with gashes on his head and a broken nose; Martin lay dead.
Zimmerman was in his car in his gated community when he spotted Martin walking. Zimmerman became suspicious. He called the police nonemergency line.
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good,” he told the dispatcher. The dispatcher asked him about the man’s whereabouts. Zimmerman got out of the car and followed in Martin’s direction. The dispatcher said it was not necessary, and Zimmerman said, “OK.”
Prosecutors will argue that Zimmerman disobeyed the police and deliberately pursued Martin, provoking the confrontation. The defense will argue that Zimmerman was headed back to his car when Martin accosted him.
Interviews with legal experts and a review of disclosed legal documents reveal a sequence of events that remains hazy in one critical aspect: It is still unclear who physically confronted who and how Martin wound up on top of Zimmerman.