Jurors Hear Opening Statements in George Zimmerman Trial

The trial is already looking like it will be a lively, emotional ride.

George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch leader who shot dead an unarmed teenager in his Florida housing development in a case that sparked controversy across the US, believed it was "his right to remove anyone he believed didn't belong," a jury heard on Monday.

"When he saw Trayvon Martin, he didn't see a young man walking home," assistant state attorney John Guy told the court in Sanford, Florida, describing the moments leading up to the defendant's fatal encounter with the 17-year-old on 26 February last year.

"He saw someone that was 'real suspicious', someone that was 'up to no good'."

During a lively opening statement on behalf of the prosecution, Guy told the all-female jury of six that Zimmerman, who is standing trial on charges of second-degree murder, had already profiled the hoodie-wearing youth, a stranger to him, because of a series of recent burglaries at the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community.

"Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away. They were the words in this grown man's mouth as he followed in the dark a 17-year-old boy he didn't know," Guy said.

"Excuse my language, but they were his words, not mine. Those were the words in that man's chest when he got out the car armed with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol to follow on foot Trayvon Benjamin Martin, who was walking home armed with 23 ounces of Arizona brand fruit juice and a small bag of Skittles candies.

"As the smoke and the smell of that fatal gunshot rose in a rainy Sanford night, Trayvon Martin, 21 days removed from his 16th year, was face down in the grass labouring through his final breaths on this Earth."

Guy said that through phone records, physical evidence and the testimony of eyewitness accounts, the state would prove that Zimmerman intended to kill Martin, who was returning to the house of his father's friend after buying the drink and sweets at a 7-Eleven shop a mile away.

"You will know in your head, in your heart and in your stomach that George Zimmerman didn't shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to. He shot him for the worst of all reasons, because he wanted to," he told the jury.

Zimmerman, 29, denies murder and has always insisted it was Martin, from Miami, who instigated their confrontation and attacked him. Zimmerman's lawyer, Don West, repeated the claim during the opening statement for the defence, saying that his client "got his butt beat" for at least 40 seconds before firing the gun to save his life.

"George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder," West said. "He shot Trayvon Martin in self-defence after being viciously attacked."

During his presentation, West produced slides of the layout of the community and played a recording of a call Zimmerman made to police, pointing out that he called a non-emergency line rather than 911.

The defendant, he said, was on his way to a Target shop to buy groceries and was not acting in any kind of neighbourhood watch role other than being a responsible member of the community who reported what he saw.

"George Zimmerman was not patrolling this night or any other night," West said.

"People were told: 'If you see anything suspicious call it in. If you think there's a threat or a crime, call 911'."

Zimmerman, who has been free on bail for more that a year, closed his eyes and sighed heavily as West played another recording to the court, of a 911 call made by a resident that captured screams followed by a single gunshot. The identity of the person who was screaming was a contentious issue in pre-trial hearings.

"Everyone agrees those are the screams of someone in a life-threatening situation, someone screaming over and over and over for help needing someone to desperately come to their assistance," West said.

Another emotional moment came when Guy described efforts by police officers first on the scene to try to save Martin's life, at one stage using a plastic carrier bag to stop air escaping from his chest. It brought tears from the boy's father, Tracy Martin, who was sitting in the public gallery.

West, meanwhile, referred to injuries Zimmerman sustained that he said were consistent with his head being hit on a concrete pavement.

In outlining their cases, both Guy and West mentioned Witness 8, a 19-year-old girlfriend of Martin who says she was on the phone to him prior to the shooting, and whose testimony could prove crucial.

No mention was made of the race, either of Zimmerman or Martin, during opening arguments, despite the shooting stoking racial tensions and prompting civil rights protests attended by thousands in Sanford and elsewhere last spring.

Zimmerman, of white-Hispanic parentage, was initially released without charge, angering many who saw it as an example of the death of a black youth going unpunished and prompting Florida's governor, Rick Scott, to appoint a special prosecutor. Zimmerman was arrested and charged six weeks after the shooting.

It took two weeks of questioning and a pool of 500 prospective jurors to reach the panel of six, five white women and one Hispanic, who will decide the case.

Circuit court judge Debra S Nelson has indicated that she expects the trial to last between two and four weeks. Zimmerman faces a sentence of at least 25 years if convicted.

Before the hearing began, Martin's parents appeared briefly before reporters to express their relief that the trial was finally under way.

"As I have been every day, I will be attending this court to try to get justice for my son. I ask that you pray for me and my family, as I don't want any other mother to have to experience what I am going through now," said Sybrina Fulton, Martin's mother.

Richard Luscombe is a freelance correspondent based in Miami, Florida, and covers news and sports stories from the US for a variety of international newspapers, including The Guardian and The Observer