TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With 200 news organizations expected in Sanford for the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, which starts Monday with jury selection, Florida is in an unwelcome spotlight again in the racially charged case.
The consequences could be far-reaching, but they're not likely to affect state laws --- and certainly not the "stand your ground" self-defense law that became the focus of controversy and led to calls for change after Trayvon Martin's death in February 2012.
Protests spread across the country after Zimmerman, then a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, shot and killed the 17-year-old Martin but wasn't arrested for weeks. It was up to the Sanford police to decide whether he would go free under "stand your ground." Longstanding tension between Sanford's black community and its law enforcement grew. By April 11, 2012, when Zimmerman turned himself in, Gov. Rick Scott had appointed a new state attorney to the case and named a panel to review the "stand your ground" law. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton had led rallies in Sanford.
Zimmerman is half white, half Hispanic; Martin was black. Zimmerman was armed; Martin was not. When no arrest quickly followed Martin's death, his family brought in attorney Benjamin Crump, who drew national attention to the case. Demands for an arrest swelled, especially after the release of a 911 tape in which a police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to track Martin's movements.
"Are you following him?" asked the dispatcher. "Yeah," Zimmerman replied. "Okay, we don't need you to do that," said the dispatcher. "Okay," Zimmerman said. That call was followed by others from residents of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where Martin was visiting his father. On the 911 tapes, screams and then a gunshot are heard.
But with no witness to Martin's death, the evidence has been fiercely debated in court, online and in the media. Whose voice was screaming for help? Who attacked whom first?
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and House sponsor of the "stand your ground" law in 2005, has argued repeatedly that it was never intended to apply to crimes in which the victim was pursued. The law does allow Floridians to "stand their ground" and shoot at people they believe are threatening them, without having any duty to first retreat.
After meeting for six months, Scott's Task Force on Citizens Safety and Protection proposed only a few tweaks to the law, including a need to redefine "unlawful activity," increase education for law enforcement and review neighborhood watch guidelines.
During the 2013 legislative session, a handful of bills calling for change or outright repeal of "stand your ground" failed without committee hearings.
On April 30 this year, Zimmerman waived his right to immunity under "stand your ground." He has pleaded not guilty on the grounds of self-defense.
"I feel some affirmation about the wording and content of our self-defense bill being accurate, the fact that it's not being used in this case," Baxley said. "And the facts of the case will bear out, and we're all anxious to see what resolution comes."
Each side has accused the other of racism. Each has said the other is painting its adversary in a negative light. High-powered lawyers are dueling over the public perception of the dead teen and the man accused of racially profiling him and following him with a gun.
Zimmerman lead attorney Mark O'Mara said on Al Sharpton's MSNBC show Thursday there is no evidence Zimmerman pursued Martin.
"There's no videotape," he said. "We'll never know precisely what happened."
Zimmerman contends Martin attacked him and banged his head on the ground. Photos from the night of Feb. 26, 2012, show Zimmerman with a bloody nose and blood on the back of his head. The defense has released photos from Martin's cell phone of a handgun and a marijuana plant, along with his texts about smoking pot and fighting.
Crump said Martin was not the one on trial and charged the defense with tainting the jury pool.
"It's just a desperate attempt by Zimmerman's defense team to try to prejudice and influence the jury," Crump said, following O'Mara on Sharpton's show.
Both sides claimed victory on March 28 this year, when Judge Debra Nelson ruled that the defense can't include Martin's fighting or smoking pot in its opening statement, but left open the door to allowing some details later on.
O'Mara said he would use such evidence only to show that Zimmerman wasn't the aggressor.
"If you suggest Mr. Zimmerman was at least at one point pursuing or following Trayvon, then he can't argue any type of self-defense, that's just not the law," he said. "It really comes down to what happened when the two people, individuals, got together…which would justify either one of them doing something to the other."
Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, is also a high school teacher. He said Martin's photos and texts shouldn't be taken to mean he was a threat.
"You could probably get 1,000 cell phone records from 1,000 17-year-olds and find similar language, and so the idea of characterizing him as a troubled youth or somehow deserving of being murdered is troubling," Bullard said. "I'm very glad that the judge saw it that way."
Bullard sponsored two bills that would have altered the "stand your ground" law during the last legislative session, but they were never heard.
Neither Bullard nor Baxley was particularly worried about potential violence after the verdict, but O'Mara said he saw pitfalls either way.
"I'm very worried that we have tied way too much to this verdict, whatever it is, that the country is getting divided by the case and that people are going to react negatively to it," he told Sharpton. "Even if they don't like the result, everybody's got to respect it."
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