George Zimmerman, 29, the son of a white father and Hispanic mother, is charged with second degree murder for shooting dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during a violent night-time struggle in a crime-plagued gated community in the central Florida city of Sanford in February last year.
Mr Zimmerman’s supporters deny that he racially targeted Trayvon. They insist that he only fired the lethal shot in self-defence to save his own life but say that the killing was hijacked by activists seeking a racial scapegoat.
The city is already on edge and there are fears it could be on the brink of a dangerous confrontation should Mr Zimmerman be acquitted.
Protesters will gather on Monday outside a courtroom in Sanford as the trial begins. But inside, in an attempt to defuse fears that events inside the court could spark unrest outside, several seats have been set aside for local black pastors to act as the “spiritual eyes and ears” of their black communities.
“We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” said Paul Benjamin, a 50-year-old pastor who established the Love Sanford Project to promote reconciliation after last year’s bitter protests.
“The mood out there is pretty combustible. Our role is to defuse the tensions in the community, to explain what is happening in court and to counter some of the negative stuff that’s being spread on the streets. This case brought back a lot of painful memories for African-Americans.”
Tensions are already flaring after Mark O’Mara, Mr Zimmerman’s lawyer, last month released texts and photographs from Trayvon’s mobile phone that appeared to show him as a devotee of guns, fighting and marijuana.
Mr O’Mara was seeking to have the material introduced as evidence, arguing that it indicated the teenager was prone to violence and might have been on drugs.
But critics accused him of attempting to prejudice a jury by stereotyping a black teen as a thug.
What is not in doubt is that Mr Zimmerman shot Trayvon during the desperate confrontation that broke out as the teen walked back to the home of his father’s fiancé following a trip to a nearby convenience store to buy a soft drink and a packet of sweets.
Mr Zimmerman ended up with cuts to his head, bruising and possibly a broken nose; Trayvon lay bleeding to death. Just about every other detail is disputed.
The son of a retired judge, Mr Zimmerman was an insurance underwriter and studying for a criminal justice degree in his spare time. He had recently set up a police-supported neighbourhood watch scheme at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a modest complex of two-storey homes, after a surge in crime as landlords moved in low-income renters following Florida’s property collapse.
In the 14 months before the killing, police were called out to the Retreat 402 times. Some residents said there was an atmosphere of fear in the neighbourhood after dozens of reports of attempted break-ins.
Trayvon, a new and temporary arrival, had been suspended from school in Miami after an empty marijuana bag was found in his bag and his mother sent him to stay with her ex-husband in hope of instilling discipline.
At the heart of the legal case is whether Mr Zimmerman was a racist vigilante who presumed an innocent black boy in a hoodie was a menacing criminal; or whether he fired off the gun that he was legally carrying in a desperate attempt to save his life after being attacked.
The case rapidly escalated into a national cause célèbre after the local police force, white-led at the time, accepted Mr Zimmerman’s explanation that he killed Trayvon in self-defence and county prosecutors decided not to bring charges.
“Justice for Trayvon” marches were organised across the US, protesters donning hoodies in a symbol of solidarity . Mr Zimmerman and his family went into hiding amid death threats.
With protests mounting, Florida’s state prosecutors intervened to charge Mr Zimmerman with second degree murder, an offence that carries up to 25 years in prison.
In Sanford last week, The Daily Telegraph saw first hand how the case has become emblematic of the black community’s struggle. The city was once known as “celery capital of the world”, shipping out its most famous produce by rail and riverboat to customers across the globe. It is now dormitory town for nearby Orlando, where Disney World is the hub of a thriving tourism industry.
But Sanford also has a troubled history of racial tensions and among older residents of the African-American neighbourhood of Goldsboro, founded as an all-black city in 1891, memories of the discriminatory separatist laws that ruled their lives until the 1960s are still powerful.
“When Trayvon was killed, it was the straw that broke our backs,” said Francis Oliver, 69, a local historian whose family moved to Sanford in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson, the first black player in professional baseball, was run out of town by racist whites during a training trip.
“Young black men had been killed here for years and the police did not investigate, they didn’t care.
“But with Trayvon, we were not going to take it anymore. Here you had the man who pulled the trigger in the police department and still they didn’t charge him, they just accepted his story at face value. The justice system didn’t investigate.
“This case echoes in small towns across the South. We are at peace for now. But we are not healed.”
The area is blighted by poverty and unemployment and tensions are not far below the surface. Barber’s shops are a traditional source of information and debate in black communities and Goldsboro is no different. And here, opposite the memorial to Trayvon set up by Mrs Olvier, there was plenty of talk about the Zimmerman trial.
“It’s calm now, but it won’t be good around here if Zimmerman gets off,” said one young man as he waited for a haircut.
It’s that attitude that the religious leaders attending this week’s trial must try to control. So must Cecil Smith, Sanford’s first black police chief, who replaced Bill Lee, sacked for his handling of the Zimmerman case.
In office for just two months, Mr Smith is under no illusions about how tough it will be to win trust in much of the black population but also to root out officers with racist attitudes in his own force.
“I have to change mindsets in the community and in this building,” he said. He has joined officers on foot for “walk-and-talks”, knocking on doors to ask residents about their concerns, and held public meetings to discuss race relations and the forthcoming trial.
And he has also made clear that if there are white officers with entrenched racist attitudes, he will fire them.
“It is very sad if it takes a tragedy like the death of Trayvon, to change things, but if that happens, if we can build some trust between this department and the community, then some good will have come out of this situation,” he said.
In non-black areas of Sanford the accused man has plenty of supporters, though few are willing to be quoted publicly. Indeed, some defence witnesses have asked to testify confidentially.
An exception is Frank Taaffe, 56, a close friend of Mr Zimmerman, fellow neighbourhood watch activist and his most vocal defender.
He described how the gated complex of modest two-storey homes with well-watered lawns, a clubhouse and swimming pool, had been hit by a crime surge, notably burglaries, after Florida’s economic collapse.
“As the economy eroded, the ambience of the place was changing,” he said. “It was getting more nebulous and darker. Not to be racist, but a criminal element moved in. If you plant corn, you get corn. If you put criminals in the area, you’ll get crime.
“George was not racially profiling that night. He cared about the neighbourhood and was worried as there had been a lot of burglaries and saw this kid acting suspiciously.
“This case has been so polarised that the other side doesn’t want to take the cotton out of its ears and listen.
“This was a 17-year-old African-American male in great shape. He saw George and he jumped George. He saw George’s gun and he would have killed George. For me the kid was up to no good.
“I’m not here to dehumanise Trayvon Martin. Someone’s child has been killed. But George was only defending his community and himself.”
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