SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A six-member, all-female jury was selected on Thursday to decide the fate of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in a case that grabbed the U.S. media spotlight in 2012.
Soon after the unusual panel was chosen, Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who is presiding over the high-profile case, said opening statements would get under way on Monday.
That will mark the formal kickoff of the trial after two weeks of jury selection and other issues in Nelson’s courtroom, which has been filled to overflowing with reporters, lawyers and spectators.
Five of the six women on the jury panel, selected from a pool of 40 potential jurors, were white and the sixth appeared to be Hispanic.
The jurors, backed by four alternates, will decide whether Zimmerman, 29, should be convicted as charged with second-degree murder and face up to life in prison for the killing that sparked a national debate about race, guns and equal justice before the law.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty, contending he acted in self-defense during a confrontation with the 17-year-old Martin in a gated community in this central Florida town.
At the time of the Martin killing, Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic, was the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in the Retreat at Twins Lakes community in Sanford. He killed Martin with a single shot from a 9mm handgun.
The case triggered widespread protests because police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman on the grounds he acted in self-defense.
Zimmerman, who walked free for 44 days after the killing, was arrested after a national outcry from both ordinary citizens, celebrities and top civil rights leaders. A special prosecutor was appointed to take over from local law enforcement when it lost credibility.
Florida’s gun and self-defense laws will be a central focus of the trial and Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, said repeatedly as he wrapped up questioning as part of the voir dire process early on Thursday that the state had the burden to prove that Zimmerman had not acted in self-defense.
“They (the prosecution) have to disprove that it was self-defense,” he said.
Judge Nelson drove home the same point in her instruction on “justifiable use of deadly force” during the final phase of jury selection. She also made a pointed reference to Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, under which the use of lethal force is deemed lawful if an individual fears grievous bodily injury or death in a confrontation with an assailant.
“The danger facing the defendant need not to have been actual,” Nelson told potential jurors. “However, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force.
“If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense, you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether the defendant was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find the defendant not guilty,” the judge added.
Martin’s parents have argued from the start that their son was an innocent victim who was stalked by Zimmerman while walking back to the Sanford home where he was staying as a guest with candy and a can of iced tea bought at a convenience store.
They accuse Zimmerman of being a vigilante - who prosecutors allege profiled Martin - and say his decision to follow their son resulted in his death three weeks past his 17th birthday.
Jurors selected to serve for the trial will not be identified and will be sequestered, by order of the court, for the duration of the trial.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers both tried to dismiss one of the jurors chosen on Thursday but Nelson denied their moves to strike her from the panel.
Identified only as E-6, the unemployed mother of two children was deemed unacceptable by the prosecution because she said, during questioning, that innocent people sometimes go to prison. The defense objected to the same juror after she noted that she was familiar with four potential witnesses in the case.
Reporting by Barbara Liston. Additional reporting by Kevin Gray; Writing and editing by Tom Brown. Editing by Andre Grenon