George Zimmerman, left, appeared in court Thursday for a pre-trial hearing ahead of his second-degree murder trial, which launches with jury selection June 10. He stands accused of second-degree murder in the shooting death of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin. / AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool
SANFORD, FL (USATODAY.com) - A prosecutor in the George Zimmerman murder trial spent much of Wednesday afternoon asking potential jurors about their firearm use, experience with neighborhood watch programs, how people are judged by their clothing and racial bias.
Those are crucial themes in the murder case against Zimmerman, who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012.
On Wednesday, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda delved into the experiences and views of 40 potential jurors.
Zimmerman, 29, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and says he killed the teen in self-defense. Prosecutors say he profiled and murdered Martin.
During nearly six hours of questioning, more than a dozen jurors said they had owned a gun, shot a gun or knew someone close to them who had firearms. At least 10 said they currently live or have lived in communities with neighborhood watch groups.
All agreed that the way someone is dressed, the fact that Trayvon was black and whether someone was in a gated community should not matter when assessing the value of a life or deciding Zimmerman's culpability.
De la Rionda was at times lighthearted with jurors who talked about being competitive barbecuers, beer lovers and animal rescuers.
Among the questions he asked: Have you ever patrolled your community because of crime? Do you know of groups that authorized neighborhood watch people to use firearms? Do you believe in taking the law into your own hands? Are you a member of the National Rifle Association?
Answers to the first three questions were all "no" except for one man's; he said there may be times when people may have to take the law into their hands.
One man, a Boy Scout leader, said he was an NRA member and instructor.
Seven potential jurors said they had been arrested without going into detail. Four said they had been victims of violent crimes. At least two said they had been victims of crimes and didn't believe the police had done enough in their cases.
No one was involved in a neighborhood watch group.
De la Rionda asked: "Does anybody have any law enforcement experience?" None said they had worked as officers, but several said they had family members and friends who worked in law enforcement. One man said his wife is in law enforcement; another said her brother-in-law was a retired police officer.
All said those connections would not affect their ability to be fair.
The potential jurors crowded shoulder to shoulder in a jury box had made it to a second round of jury selection after lawyers on both sides agreed that their exposure to news reports about the shooting would not interfere with their ability to serve.
"We are here to seek justice," de la Rionda said to the group. "This is your opportunity to live the Constitution."
Circuit Judge Debra Nelson read the charges against Zimmerman to the potential jurors, including the part where prosecutors say Zimmerman acted with a depraved mind and without regard for Trayvon's life.
For the first time since the pretrial proceedings began, Zimmerman's father, Robert Zimmerman, and mother, Gladys Zimmerman, were in court.
"Despite safety considerations, the time was right to do what they could to visibly advocate for George's innocence," said a Zimmerman family statement released Wednesday. "Our parents have avoided showing their face on camera because of numerous death threats."
Trayvon Martin's father, Tracy Martin, and his mother, Sybrina Fulton, have attended hearings since court action began last week.
On Thursday, defense attorneys will begin questioning the 40 potential jurors.
Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, said lawyers hope to begin opening statements Monday.