The opposing attorneys squared off on the first day of testimony in a trial that has attracted international attention and prompted nationwide debates about gun control, race, and equal justice under the law.
Included among the millions likely to be following the case are civil rights leaders Rev Jesse Jackson and Rev Al Sharpton, who joined demonstrations in the weeks before prosecutors filed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman 44 days after the shooting.
Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, has denied that the shooting had anything to do with race.
His mother was born in Peru. His father is a white American. Martin was black.
Prosecutor John Guy’s first words to jurors recounted what Zimmerman told a police dispatcher in a call shortly before the fatal confrontation with Martin: “Fucking punks. These assholes. They always get away.”
Guy said Zimmerman was profiling Martin as he followed him through the gated community where Zimmerman lived and where Martin was visiting. He said Zimmerman viewed the teen “as someone about to a commit a crime in his neighbourhood”. “And he acted on it. That’s why we’re here,” he said.
Zimmerman didn’t have to shoot Martin, Guy said. “He shot him for the worst of all reasons: because he wanted to.”
Defence attorney Don West said Zimmerman was being viciously attacked when he shot Martin. He was sucker-punched by Martin, who then pounded his head into the footpath. West played for jurors the call to a police dispatcher in which Zimmerman used the obscenities.
Martin had opportunities to go home after Zimmerman followed him and then lost track of him, West said, but instead the teenager confronted the neighbourhood watch volunteer.
“I think the evidence will show that this is a sad case,” West said. “There are no monsters here.”
The prosecutor described Zimmerman as someone who wanted to be a police officer, and he dismantled the story Zimmerman has told investigators about what happened during the fight that left Martin dead from a bullet to his chest.
Zimmerman’s claim that Martin had his hands over his mouth is false as none of Zimmerman’s DNA was found on Martin’s body, Guy said.
He said Zimmerman’s claim that he had to fire because Martin was reaching for his firearm is false as none of Martin’s DNA was on the gun or holster.
Zimmerman is pleading not guilty to second-degree murder, claiming self-defence.