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SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - The Trayvon Martin murder case went to trial on Monday, with the first order of business selecting a jury to decide the fate of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager and triggered a national debate about race, guns and equal justice before the law.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder and faces up to life in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty, contending he acted in self-defense during a confrontation with Martin, 17, in a gated community in this central Florida town on February 26, 2012.
After a brief opening session in the courtroom, Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson called a recess so that she, prosecutors and defense attorneys could meet briefly with a pool of about 100 potential jurors. Zimmerman, dressed in a jacket and tie, was joined in the courtroom by his wife Shellie.
Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton, 47, and her ex-husband Tracy Martin, 46, were also in court, accompanied by the family's lawyer.
After completing a questionnaire, potential jurors were summoned one by one into the courtroom for individual questioning. It could take more than a week for the judge and lawyers to select six jurors and possibly as many as four alternates.
At the time of the Martin killing, Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic, was the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community. He killed Martin with a single shot to the chest from a 9mm handgun.
The case triggered widespread protests because police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, and said he had acted in self defense.
Tight security was being enforced by federal, state and local police in and around the Seminole County courthouse. Potential jurors were not identified by name in court nor were their faces shown by the media.
Four seats inside the courtroom will be available to local pastors who will monitor the trial and be ready to help calm any racial tensions.
Seminole County's population is 66 per cent white, 18 per cent Hispanic and 12 percent black, according to the 2010 census.
Potential jurors were asked if they were familiar with the case and whether they had formed opinions about it. The first possible juror to be questioned by lawyers, a middle-aged grandmother, said she worked nights and had not heard much about the case.
"I'd seen that Zimmerman's doing a neighborhood watch and someone got killed and that's basically all I know," she said.
Another would be juror said he had been grieving the loss of his wife at the time of the killing so he had not paid attention to the news. But he said his girlfriend had expressed her opinion on Sunday.
"She thinks Zimmerman should have stayed in his car and that would have alleviated the whole thing," he said.
As the trial opened on Monday, the Martin family issued a statement voicing relief that it was finally under way.
"As we seek justice for our son Trayvon, we also seek a fair and impartial trial," said the statement, which was read by Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, in a media room at the courthouse.
"We ask that the community continue to stay peaceful as we place our faith in the justice system," the statement said.
Experts have said the case will largely depend on what the jurors believe happened in the struggle before Martin's killing.
Judge Nelson denied a defense request for a delay in the trial in the opening courtroom session on Monday.
In addition to presiding over jury selection, Nelson is also due to finish hearing another pre-trial motion over efforts by the defense to block testimony by audio experts suggesting that Martin can be heard screaming for help in the background of a 911 call, moments before he was killed.
A hearing for defense lawyers to challenge the methods used by prosecution audio experts began last Thursday and had to be carried over after it dragged on for three days, including a special Saturday court session.
Lead defense attorney Mark O'Mara has called the 911 recording "the most significant piece of evidence in the case."
If the identity of the person crying for help can be established, that would indicate who was dominant in the deadly confrontation, an important issue to Zimmerman's claim that he shot in self-defense.
At issue is whether the expert analyses were derived from techniques generally accepted in the scientific community, or through some new, untested approach.
Reporting by Barbara Liston; Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by David Adams, John Wallace and Benard Orr