SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida murder trial to decide the fate of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman looks to be on track for lawyers to deliver opening statements and witnesses to begin testifying by next Monday.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers on Wednesday morning will begin their final round of questioning of 40 prospective jurors, eventually picking six jurors and at least four alternates. They will decide if Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder for fatally shooting unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
“This is where they get down to the nitty-gritty ... Now they will be asking the jurors ‘What do you think about the police, or neighborhood watch, or vigilantes and guns?’ This is about separating the wheat from the chaff to get to the good stuff,” said David Weinstein, a Miami lawyer and former prosecutor.
Zimmerman, 29, says he followed Martin in the gated community of Sanford in February 2012 because the teenager looked suspicious. Zimmerman says during a struggle that he shot Martin in self-defense.
The case drew international media attention and nationwide protests after police initially let Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic, walk free based on his claim of self-defense.
Since jury selection began June 10, lawyers focused their initial questions on what prospective jurors knew about the case from the intense news coverage it generated and opinions they might have formed. The prospective jurors were questioned individually to avoid spreading possibly biased viewpoints.
The lawyers on Tuesday reached an agreed-upon number of 40 to move on to the second round of group questioning.
“This is where the lawyers get to pre-try the case,” said Weinstein. “They will each try and introduce the theory of the defense and the prosecution to test the reaction. They want to start planting seeds in the minds of the jury,” he added.
While the defense will seek to get prospective jurors thinking that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense and that Martin was stronger than him, the prosecution will try to plant the seed that Zimmerman has a history of aggressive behavior, and that Martin would be alive if Zimmerman had listened to a police dispatcher who told him not to follow Martin.
The defense team expects to complete the second round of questioning in two days. But Weinstein said a misstep by a lawyer can dramatically extend the time needed to seat a jury. By asking a wrong question, a lawyer can inject bias into the group requiring the judge to throw out the entire panel.
“Then you’re back to square one, and you have to start jury selection all over again,” he said.
Additional reporting and editing by David Adams