Self-defence or racism? Shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin that gripped the US comes to trial


A Florida prosecutor has told jurors that the former neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Sanford early last year not in self-defence but “because he wanted to”.


Prosecutors in the Florida murder trial of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman will unveil a star witness today, the girl Trayvon Martin was talking to on the phone in the minutes before he was shot dead.

The teenager, who has been known as Witness #8 until now, was due to testify about what Trayvon, the unarmed black 17-year-old killed by Mr Zimmerman last year, had told her about what he saw that night.

Identified in court on Monday only as Rachel, a friend of Trayvon’s from Miami, she received a running account about what was happening, starting when Trayvon noticed Mr Zimmerman watching him in the gated central Florida community that he was visiting.

In previous written testimony Rachel said that Trayvon appeared scared and was trying to get away from Mr Zimmerman. She was urging him to run. She last heard Trayvon say, "why are you following me?" after which she said she heard what sounded like Trayvon falling. Then the phone line went dead.

The Martin family lawyer, Ben Crump, has said her testimony helps destroy Mr Zimmerman's claim that he acted in self-defence.

Yesterday, prosecutors told the court that Mr Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon not in self-defence but “because he wanted to”. The jury heard details from the first call Mr Zimmerman made to emergency services after spotting Trayvon on the night of the killing. Phrases captured on tape, prosecutor John Guy said, included, “fucking punks, these assholes always get away”.

Quickly on view in the Sanford Criminal Courthouse was the distance between the two versions of what transpired on the night of 26 February last year, which has already divided public opinion across America.

Mr Zimmerman, 29, who has Hispanic heritage, has pleaded innocent to the charges of second degree murder. His lawyers contend he fired his gun only after being assaulted.

“There are no monsters here,” Don West, a defence lawyer, said in his opening statement, denying the contention that his client had chased and then confronted Trayvon, who was black, in part because of his race.

“George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder. He shot Trayvon Martin in self-defence after being viciously attacked.” He added: “He shot Trayvon Martin because he had to, in self-defence”.

But the prosecution promised the panel of six jurors, who are all women, that it would prove that Mr Zimmerman was never attacked by the teenager. From the start, Mr Guy said, the defendant had spun “a tangled web of lies” about the shooting to protect himself.

“George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to. He shot him for the worst of all reasons – because he wanted to,” he said.

Just before the trial’s opening Judge Debra Nelson barred the prosecution from introducing testimony from voice experts who were to argue that screaming heard on another emergency call tape was that of Trayvon. But Mr Guy said jurors would hear the call and be able to make up their own minds up.

“In the background, you will hear the gunshot that killed Trayvon Martin and you will hear screaming in the background. Listen carefully, please, to that call and listen carefully when the screaming stops. It’s right when the gunshot goes off.

“Trayvon Martin was silenced immediately when the bullet the defendant fired was shot through his heart,” Mr Guy said. The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, will be closely watched in part because of the national debate that was stirred by the killing and the decision by Sanford police initially to release Mr Zimmerman on the basis of Florida’s controversial self-defence laws known as “stand your ground”.

After outrage spread, especially in America’s black community, a special prosecutor was appointed to look into the case and Mr Zimmerman finally turned himself in. The Sanford police chief was subsequently fired.

If found guilty, Mr Zimmerman could be sentenced to life in prison.