By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - To his supporters, Trayvon Martin was a typical teenager: flawed yet full of promise, a boy on the verge of becoming a man with dreams of piloting planes. If he differed from his peers it was because he embraced public displays of affection from his parents.
To defenders of the man who killed him, Martin was a gun-loving fight enthusiast with a marijuana habit, a representative of the dark side of the "gangsta" culture popularized by hip-hop music and urban crime mythology.
For all the attention paid to a homicide that captivated the United States for much of 2012, those competing narratives still cloud much of the public's understanding of Martin, who was three weeks past his 17th birthday when he was shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012.
"We never said he was an angel, but he was ours," said Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, a bureaucrat for Miami's housing authority who was thrust into the media spotlight by her son's death. "Trayvon had his ups and downs, his good days and bad days like every teenager."
Zimmerman, 29, was due to go on trial for second-degree homicide on Monday, when jury selection was set to begin. He has pleaded not guilty, contending he acted in self defense during their confrontation in a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.
The case inspired national debates on race and guns and the law. Celebrities tweeted and demonstrators marched around the United States in protest when police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying he acted in self-defense. President Barack Obama sympathized with the victim, seeming to acknowledge racial profiling in America when he said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
The controversy forced the police chief to step down, the chief prosecutor to remove himself from the case, and the governor to appoint a special prosecutor who brought the murder charge against Zimmerman.
In the face of such a maelstrom, Zimmerman's defense lawyers argued that Martin's character was relevant to their case. So far, the judge presiding over the case has resisted admitting such arguments.
"We have a lot of evidence that marijuana use had something to do with the event," Zimmerman's lawyer, Mark O'Mara, told a pre-trial hearing late last month. An autopsy revealed marijuana in Martin's system.
Supporters of Zimmerman say he has been unfairly tainted as racist, noting the neighborhood was on heightened alert after a series of break-ins in the community.
Zimmerman's lawyers argue Martin's family has tried to present a "totally inaccurate" picture of the boy, hiding a darker side of his interest in drugs, guns and fights.
"From the defense perspective it's extremely important because of their proposition that Zimmerman was defending himself and that Trayvon was an aggressor," said David Weinstein, a Miami lawyer and former state prosecutor.
"On the prosecution side you want to downplay that and keep Trayvon's character from being a central theme," he added.
The judge ruled at a pre-trial hearing last month that photos and texts from Martin's cellphone and social media posts, as well as his suspension from school for suspected marijuana use, cannot be mentioned in opening arguments.
Martin's parents have argued from the start their son was an innocent victim who was stalked by Zimmerman while walking back to the gated community near Orlando with candy and soft drinks he had bought at a convenience store.
They accuse Zimmerman of being a vigilante, whose decision to pursue their son provoked the struggle that resulted in Martin's death.
As long as the prosecution stays close to the narrative of what happened that night, lawyers say it will be tough for the defense to bring up any possible negative baggage in the dead boy's past.
Martin's parents say they are not the least bit worried should his character be brought up at trial.
"You can't condemn every teenager that has been suspended from school because you would be throwing rocks at a lot of kids," said Martin's mother, Fulton, 47. She is on a leave of absence from her Miami Dade county housing job until the trial is over.
A CAREER IN AVIATION
Martin's parents say his suspension and marijuana use were rare blemishes. Martin, who had no criminal record, was eagerly exploring many typical teenage pursuits - sports, music, roller skating and the movies - and was interested in pursuing a career related to aviation, they said.
"He was at that age that he thought there was nothing he couldn't do," his mother said.
Martin would have graduated high school this month.
For two summers in middle school he juggled his passion for American football with attending a science and math summer camp led by Barrington Irving, a Miami pilot and educator who in 2007 at age 23 became the youngest person - and the first African American - to fly solo around the world.
Irving said Martin was most interested in the mechanical side of aviation, building and fixing aircraft, but also took to the air with Irving.
"He kind of reminded me of myself a little bit as it relates to his love of football and then going into aviation," the aviator said. "He actually showed his commitment, going to a summer program and then going to football practice."
Martin was introduced to aviation by his uncle, Ronald Fulton, who had been studying to be an aviation mechanic when a car accident in 2001 left him a paraplegic.
"If something would break he would always find a way to make it work," the uncle said.
Martin's school friends said he was known by the nicknames 'Slimm' and 'So Skinny' due to his narrow frame and baggy clothes. They described him as a popular kid who steered clear of trouble.
"I knew who to avoid, who the bad kids were, and Trayvon was definitely not one of them," said Malcolm Hawkins, 16.
The judge has blocked efforts by the defense to obtain Martin's school records, but his friends and teachers say he was a good student with a special interest in science.
The week before his death, Martin was suspended from school after a baggie containing traces of marijuana was found in his book bag. His mother sent him to his father's house.
"That was his punishment. He had to tell Daddy what he did," said his uncle, Ronald Fulton, who wears a black wrist band that reads 'Justice 4 Trayvon'.
Martin's misbehavior was typical "teen stuff," he said. "He was just trying to be hip, slick and cool, trying to fit is what he was doing. It's all part of growing up."
(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Editing by Arlene Getz, Daniel Trotta and Richard Chang)
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