The ‘Trial of the Century’ begins in Sanford

SANFORD, Fla. — The white tents have been pitched again outside the courthouse here, the media horde settling in for another long sensational trial.

By Monday morning, there was one registered media outlet for each potential juror summoned for State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman — about 100 in each group — and a battery of camera lenses focused on a line of county residents, who snaked from the morning steam into the air conditioning. The potential jurors put their shiny handbags and bookmarked bestsellers through the X-ray machines and then stepped through themselves, orderly and quiet, as if this is just any court case, and not one touted as the Trial of the Century.

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Martin, Zimmerman families speak as trial starts.

Martin, Zimmerman families speak as trial starts.

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Flashback: Trayvon Martin’s parents speak with The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz about how they first heard of their son’s death.

Flashback: Trayvon Martin’s parents speak with The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz about how they first heard of their son’s death.

There is a total pool of 500 Seminole County residents to be questioned and vetted to select six jurors and four alternates, a painstaking process that may take much of the week. The judge presiding over the murder trial of Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who claims he shot the unarmed 17-year-old Travyon Martin in self-defense, has ordered they each be identified only by a number.

Her ruling is but one indication of the intense scrutiny that has been visited upon this city and its residents. Sixteen months after the killing, the area remains unsettled by the discord that erupted here last year and spread throughout the country — and is hopeful that civility prevails during the four- to six-week trial and beyond the eventual verdict.

“There’s kind of a little nervous energy,” says Mayor Jeff Triplett. “I equate it to having butterflies in your stomach. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone’s saying the right message of ‘let the court system work.’ ”

Sunday, on the eve of jury selection, the trial was a magnet for commentary outside The Alley, a blues bar in Sanford’s brick-paved downtown.

“I hate that people are trying to turn it into something it’s not,” says Belle Sanford, who works at a spay-and-neuter clinic and grew up in Sanford (and demurs when asked about her last name). “People are afraid there will be riots. . . . I feel very safe in my town, and I love my town.”

“It’s not racist down here, but you’ve got ignorant people,” adds a longtime Sanford resident named Robert, who declined to give his last name. Zimmerman “deserves some kind of manslaughter [conviction]. He was running around with his gun. . . . If he hadn’t shot Trayvon, he would’ve shot someone else.”

Jerry Breeden, who moved from Tennessee to nearby DeLand last year, views the media and racial bias as major problems. He wonders why there wasn’t national attention on the recent retrial of the African American men who carjacked, tortured, raped and killed a young white couple in Knoxville six years ago.

“If that couple had been a young black couple and it had been hoodlum whites who did that — they would’ve burned Knoxville down,” says Breeden, who retired from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

When the trial starts later this week or next, the jury will be instructed to weigh only the evidence. Race, however, remains an uncertain force on the scales of justice.

“This is bigger than a jury,” says Traci Stern, an Atlanta resident and “full-time revolutionary.” She and other out-of-town members of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA were visiting Sunday evening on the front porch of Felicia Grant-Riggins, a resident of the historic black neighborhood of Goldsboro.

“The way in which the system functions, with white supremacy at its core, trains people in certain ways,” says Stern, who is white and wearing a neon-yellow “We Are All Trayvon” sticker on her denim shorts. “People like George Zimmerman have been trained to look at black youth with suspicion.”

Grant-Riggins, a 48-year-old caregiver who has lived in Goldsboro all her life, extends her arms out to W. 11th Street in a calming gesture. She has been praying that the city remains quiet.

“I have empathy for George,” she says. “Some people are gonna be belligerent. . . . When all is said and done, I’m about peace.”

Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, echoed this sentiment in a verbal statement Monday morning in courtroom 1B.

“We ask that the commuity stay peaceful as we place our faith in the justice system,” says Martin, flanked by Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and their attorneys.

Robert Zimmerman Jr., the defendant’s brother, spoke in the same location two hours later. Though the family is under “tremendous scrutiny,” living in seclusion and receiving death threats, he says, they remain confident and hopeful that the state will not be able to meet its burden of proof.

George Zimmerman, a native of Manassas and former Catholic altar boy, was working toward a criminal justice degree at Seminole State College. Trayvon, who was unarmed at the time he was shot, was a high school junior from the Miami area who was visiting, with his father, the subdivision where Zimmerman lived.

In the months following the event, Trayvon’s death morphed from an overlooked news brief to a cause celebre. Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, became in turn a villain — after he wasn’t immediately arrested, protests were staged across the country — and then a rallying point for people who thought his prosecution was the result of public pressure, not proper law enforcement.

“You don’t charge in this country simply to assuage the concerns of masses,” says Robert Zimmerman Jr. on Monday, after expressing concern over the court’s ability to impanel an unbiased jury. “You charge when there’s probable cause. . . . Unfortunately a political calculation was made, centered around the politics of race, and [it] will always defile [George].”

The forensic evidence “would suggest that even if George was pursuing, that Trayvon became the aggressor when he struck him,” Zimmerman’s lead attorney Mark O’Mara says Sunday on WFTV’s “Central Florida Spotlight” show. “Not to mention George following [him] is a legal act. . . . Trayvon did not have a bruise on him, but for the fatal gunshot.”

“I think there’s an attempt to make it a complicated trial,” says Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump in a phone interview. “This is not a complicated trial. . . . I believe if the roles were reversed — if you had a black man get out of a car carrying a 9mm gun and chase a white unarmed teenager, and shoot and kill him— nobody would say this is a hard case.”

Outside the courthouse, in an expansive yet mostly empty lawn reserved for demonstrators, a dozen members of the Revolutionary Communist Party chant “The whole system is guilty!” and hold posters of Trayvon that say “A modern American lynching.”

Farther back from the criminal justice center, under the shade of a tree, retired teacher Francis Oliver sits in a yellow folding camping chair. As the revolutionaries chant, as generators from the media encampment groan and sputter, as potential jurors scoot to their cars for a lunch break, Oliver maintains a quiet presence. Yes, she could watch the proceedings on television, she says, but she wants to support Trayvon’s family by showing up to the courthouse as often as she can.

“I’m not here because of Zimmerman’s murder trial,” says Oliver, who lives in Sanford. “I came out here for the profiling of young black men . . . to see Florida’s Stand Your Ground law watered down, changed or dropped. That’s the justice part of this case.”

Inside the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, juror B30 is asked about his awareness of the case.

“All I know is what I hear from other people,” says the man, who requires a hearing aid, when asked about his awareness of the case. “It was two people being in the wrong place at the wrong time and two people instigating something that could’ve probably been avoided.”

 
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