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George Zimmerman's Notoriety Raises Concerns For Fair Trial

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ZIMMERMAN
The many faces of George Zimmerman over the years. Zimmerman, 28, has been charged with second-degree murder for the killing of Trayvon Martin, 17. | Getty Images

George Zimmerman, accused of murdering unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, was once an anonymous loan officer in a Florida suburb. He is now a reviled symbol of racial profiling, vigilante justice and everything broken about race relations in America.

Whether or not Zimmerman deserves that onus, a pending trial may be a vehicle for the nation to sort publicly through some of these issues. But on a personal level, Zimmerman has been the focus of so much media coverage and extraordinary public vitriol that legal experts say an impartial jury may be difficult to find to weigh his claim of self-defense for the shooting.

"We have to worry about his ability to get a fair trial," said Gabriel J. Chin, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. "There is a risk that he's convicted based on media impressions and popular sentiments rather than evidence."

Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in the case, denied that public pressure had any bearing on her decision to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In a charging document filed on Thursday, state prosecutors said Zimmerman pursued Martin and provoked the confrontation that led to his death.

Some legal observers said a manslaughter charge might be more appropriate, given what is publicly known about the case. "For murder two, I think it's totally overkill," said Joseph Benfante, a prominent Manhattan defense attorney who is not directly involved in the case.

To convict on a murder charge requires the prosecutor to prove a defendant's intent to kill, an element that may be difficult to establish in Martin's death, Benfante said. Other experts, however, said the murder charge suggests that prosecutors have evidence that shows Zimmerman was the aggressor in the altercation, the full details of which have been unknown to the public.

"We haven't seen the full picture yet," said Kenneth Nunn, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

Zimmerman can seek a bail hearing under Florida law, but his notoriety has diminished his chances for release, at least in the immediate future. On Thursday, Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's defense attorney, said he would wait at least a few weeks before seeking bail, in an attempt to "calm this case down."

Zimmerman's arrest and incarceration on Wednesday marked the beginning of a new chapter in a case that has raised questions about much more than the murky circumstances around the killing of an unarmed teenager. For many, the case has come to represent all of the injustices faced not just by blacks in Sanford but by minority communities across the country, where issues of racial profiling, 'stop and frisk' searches and police brutality remain hot button issues.

Without mass rallies and media attention, the shooting would have very likely gone unremarked on the local crime blotter. Instead, Martin's case has become a cause, a national phenomenon with competing interests often drawn along racial lines. Meanwhile, the case could prove pivotal in the fight to repeal Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground laws.

In the process, Zimmerman's life has been threatened, and lawyers and national media have dragged the skeletons of Zimmerman's violent past out into the light. Posters made from a 2005 mugshot of Zimmerman -- looking chubby and bleary-eyed in a jail-issued orange jumpsuit -- have been hoisted at rallies and protests.

Everyone from the president of the United States to former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson have weighed in on the case, with Tyson saying of Zimmerman in an interview Thursday with Yahoo Sports that "it's a disgrace that man hasn't been shot yet."

Some say that the conduct of the Sanford Police Department, which opted not to charge Zimmerman initially and has long been a source of angst for Sanford's black community, has also added kindling to the fire by mishandling aspects of the investigation.

"Had [Zimmerman] been arrested from the start, we would not know his name," said Goldie Taylor, a cultural critic and cable news pundit with MSNBC. "We also would not have known the name Trayvon Martin. I think the uproar around this is really sparked by what was by all accounts an abbreviated investigation."

Local jurors are likely to be aware of at least some, if not all, of the controversy surrounding Zimmerman. And it may predispose them, analysts say, to think the worst.

"When you have a racially charged case, you never know what the jury's going to do," said Benefante. "They could easily hit him with the max."

Zimmerman's attorney could seek a change of venue, a motion that would take the case out of Seminole County, the epicenter of publicity and where public scrutiny has been most intense. His attorney has not yet made public any plans to do so.

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