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Jury selection in slaying of Florida teen drags into third day

Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda (R) talks to Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin, at the George Zimmerman trial in Semin
Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda (R) talks to Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin, at the George Zimmerman trial in Semin

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Prosecutors and defense lawyers in Florida searched for a third day on Wednesday for potential jurors unaffected by blanket media coverage of last year's killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Six jurors in Seminole County criminal court will decide the fate of George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch volunteer who claims self-defense in the February 26, 2012, shooting death of Martin. Jury selection began on Monday and has been moving slowly with only 20 potential jurors making it through the first round of questioning.

Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder and faces up to life imprisonment if convicted in a case that ignited protests and national debate about race, guns and equal justice before the law.

Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic, walked free without being charged for 44 days after he admitted killing the 17-year-old Martin with a single shot from his 9mm handgun in the town of Sanford in central Florida near Orlando.

There were no eyewitnesses and police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman. Zimmerman said he confronted Martin because he looked suspicious and shot the teenager only after Martin became aggressive. He said he acted in accordance with the state's stand-your-ground law, which allows a person to use deadly force if he fears for his life.

A subsequent firestorm of controversy - including charges that the case was not fully pursued because Martin was black - forced the Sanford police chief to step down. The chief prosecutor also removed himself from the case.

Aware of the polarizing issues surrounding the trial, Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson lined up 500 potential jurors for a preliminary round of questioning, mostly focused on individual media exposure to the case.

"I think it would be pretty hard to avoid," one white middle-aged man said on Wednesday when asked if he had seen news coverage. He said his first impression of the shooting was that "it was a tragedy either way... the whole thing is a tragedy."

Of about 100 prospective jurors who were summoned to court on Monday and filled out a questionnaire, 75 have so far been dismissed and 20 have made it through to a second round of questioning, court spokeswoman Michelle Kennedy said.

Kennedy said lawyers would continue questioning prospective jurors individually about pre-trial publicity until they select a group of about 30 people, who will then be questioned about more commonplace jury selection topics.

The judge and lawyers are working to select a panel of six jurors and four alternates in a process that legal experts say could last well into next week.

A lawyer for the Martin family, Benjamin Crump, blasted former New York police detective Harry Houck on Wednesday after he told Fox News that, "Trayvon Martin would be alive today, OK, if he didn't ... have a street attitude. That's the bottom line."

Crump called on the media to refuse to participate in "victim blaming."

(Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Grant McCool and Bill Trott)

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