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

Former neighbourhood watchman accused of killing black teenager ‘because he wanted to’

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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”.

The trial of Mr Zimmerman had barely begun on Monday when the prosecutor, John Guy, shared some of the language he said the defendant used in a first call to emergency services after spotting Trayvon on the night of the killing. Phrases captured on tape, he 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.