George Zimmerman, 29, faces a charge of second-degree murder for killing Trayvon Martin, as the 17-year-old walked with candy in his pocket through a gated Florida community on February 26, 2012.
Zimmerman — who has pleaded not guilty — sat in the dock in the Seminole County courthouse as Judge Debra Nelson, together with lawyers for both sides, began the process of picking six jurors from a pool of potentials, about 200 of whom lined up Monday.
Martin’s parents, meanwhile, expressed relief that the trial was starting and called for peace as proceedings got under way.
“We are seeking justice for our son and a fair trial,” father Tracy Martin told reporters alongside his ex-wife Sybrina Fulton and family attorney Benjamin Crump. “Trayvon’s life was taken unnecessarily and tragically, but we call upon the community to be peaceful.”
“We have placed our faith in the justice system and ask that the community do the same. Please pray for Trayvon and for our family.”
When police arrived at the scene, the only items found in the pockets of the hooded sweatshirt belonging to the teenager — who was on his way to a house where his father was staying with a friend — were a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.
The son of a white father and a Hispanic mother, Zimmerman has argued he acted in self defense when he shot Martin after confronting him.
Sanford police initially released Zimmerman, saying he acted in line with so-called “stand your ground” rules, which give immunity to those who use firearms when they feel their lives are in danger.
But Zimmerman was later arrested and faces life in prison if convicted. In the end, he opted not to base his defense on the “stand your ground” law and is instead mounting a traditional self-defense case.
Showing photos as evidence, the volunteer watchman argues Martin attacked him and left him with a bloodied head.
The killing riveted the United States at the time, sparking massive protests in several US cities against what many saw as a racial bias in the crime — and in the police response.
Martin’s death even drew an expression of sympathy from President Barack Obama, and triggered a debate on “stand your ground” laws in Florida and other gun-friendly states.
Nicolas Dorsten, a lawyer specializing in “stand your ground” cases, said both sides will struggle to find objective jurors.
“This case has gotten national coverage so it will be tough to find a jury that can be fair to either side, quite frankly,” he said. “It is going to be one of the struggles both the state and the defense will have to come up with.”
Outside the courtroom, police put up a barricade to fend off protesters in this small town near Orlando, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Miami.
“The whole damn system is guilty,” said a sign in the crowd of about a dozen demonstrators outside the court.