June 19, 2013 / 6:51 PM / 5 years ago

Jury selection in Trayvon Martin murder case moves into final phase

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - The final round of jury selection began in Florida on Wednesday in the trial of a former neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who is charged with the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in February last year.

Lawyers on both sides are working to whittle down a group of 40 potential jurors to form a panel of six and at least four alternates with the expectation that prosecutors and lawyers will deliver opening arguments on Monday.

The case drew international media attention and nationwide protests after police initially let Zimmerman, 29, a light-skinned Hispanic, walk free based on his claim of self-defense during a struggle when he shot dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman says he followed Martin in a gated community of Sanford in central Florida on February 26, 2012 because the teenager looked suspicious.

On Wednesday, Judge Debra Nelson in Seminole County criminal court read the formal charge of second-degree murder against Zimmerman to the prospective jurors, who will undergo further vetting by prosecutors and Zimmerman’s defense team.

Attorney Benjamin Crump (C), representing the parents of slain teen Trayvon Martin, talks to state attorney Angela Corey prior to the the start of proceedings as jury selection continues in George Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial in Sanford, Florida, June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Burbank/Pool

Among the 40 potential jurors are a man who competes in barbecue competitions, another man who described himself as an avid arm wrestler, a widow who rides in a motorcycle club that supports disabled military veterans and several women who work with animal rescue groups.

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda asked basic questions including whether jurors were married, how many children they have and details about their hobbies.

George Zimmerman (L), waits for the jury pool to arrive, with his defense team as jury selection continues in his second-degree murder trial in Sanford, Florida, June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Burbank/Pool

The defense team expects to complete their questioning of potential jurors in two days. Legal experts said the jurors will likely be asked their views on law enforcement officers, or neighborhood watch programs, or vigilantes and guns.

Since jury selection began June 10, lawyers focused their questions on what prospective jurors knew about the case from the intense news coverage it generated and opinions they might have formed.

The potential jurors were questioned individually to avoid spreading possibly biased opinions. Their names are being kept secret under the judge’s orders.

On Wednesday, Zimmerman’s parents appeared in court for the first time, seated alongside his wife, Shellie. Martin’s parents, other family members and their family lawyer sat in a row directly across the aisle.

Writing by David Adams and Kevin Gray; Editing by Grant McCool

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