SANFORD, Fla. — Attorneys quizzed a whittled-down group of prospective jurors Wednesday in the Trayvon Martin case about whether they had fired guns, made judgments based on how people dressed or had been neighborhood watch volunteers like the teen's shooter.
The day began with a judge reading the formal second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed, 17-year-old Martin in February 2012. Zimmerman, 29, is pleading not guilty and says he acted in self-defense.
Martin's death prompted public outrage around the nation, with some accusing Sanford police of failing to investigate the shooting thoroughly from the beginning because of Martin's race and because he was from the Miami area. Martin was black and wearing a hoodie at the time of the confrontation; the hoodie later was appropriated by protesters as a symbol of the shooting. Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic.
After the judge read the charge, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda began a second round of more intensive, personal questioning with the 40 potential jurors, whose names are kept confidential. The final jury will be sequestered throughout the trial to protect jurors from outside influence.
De la Rionda also warned jurors that they would have to forget anything they knew about the case previously and base their information only on what they heard in the courtroom. He reminded them the judicial system is different than what they see on television shows like the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises.
"What you saw on TV or on the Internet or read or what the media said is completely irrelevant," he said.
Several candidates were involved with rescuing animals, and the pool included a competitive arm-wrestler, a competitive fisherman and a man who enters barbecue competitions. Seven potential jurors said they had previously been arrested. But they said that their cases had been dropped and that they thought they were treated fairly.
Fourteen candidates said they had been victims of crimes, including four involving violent crimes. A white woman in her 50s said it would be difficult for her to keep her experience with a violent crime out of the courtroom.
"It's always in my mind," she said.
Twenty-seven of the 40 potential jurors are white, seven are black, three are mixed race and three are Hispanic. Twenty-four are women and 16 are men.
The racial and ethnic makeup of potential jurors is relevant since prosecutors have argued that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer for his gated community in Sanford, Fla., profiled Trayvon Martin when he followed the teen last year as Martin was walking back from a convenience store to the house of his father's fiancee.
Zimmerman fatally shot Martin a short time later following a confrontation that was partially captured on a 911 call.
De la Rionda also asked if the potential jurors had been members of a neighborhood watch group and if it was acceptable for individuals to take the law into their own hands. None of the jurors had much experience with neighborhood watch groups and for the most part didn't believe it was OK for individuals to act as law enforcement officers.
"There may be occasions, but I would generally say no," said a middle-aged black man.
The prosecutor also asked if potential jurors either owned or had fired guns and if the race or age of Martin was important to any decision they would make. Around two dozen jury candidates either owned or had fired guns, and no one said age and race mattered.
When asking potential jurors about whether clothing mattered, a reference to Martin's hoodie, a white woman in her 30s said, "I try not to make judgments, but I know we make assumptions."
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