By Barbara Liston
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Monday in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 in a case that fueled a national debate about race, guns and equal justice before the law.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder and faces up to life in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty, contending he acted in self-defense during a confrontation with Martin, 17, in a gated community in this central Florida town on February 26, 2012.
After a brief opening session in the courtroom, where Zimmerman was joined by his wife Shellie, Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson called a recess so that she, the prosecutors and defense attorneys could meet briefly with a pool of about 100 potential jurors.
The jurors were then to fill out a questionnaire before being summoned one by one into the courtroom for individual questioning.
It is unclear how long it will take for the judge and lawyers to select a panel of six jurors.
At the time of the Martin killing, Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic, was the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community. During a struggle, he killed Martin with a single shot to the chest from a 9mm handgun.
The case fanned national debates about race and guns, and triggered widespread protests, because police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying he acted in self-defense.
As the trial opened on Monday, the Martin family issued a statement voicing relief that it was finally under way.
"As we seek justice for our son Trayvon, we also seek a fair and impartial trial," said the statement, which was read by Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, in a media room at the courthouse.
"We ask that the community continue to stay peaceful as we place our faith in the justice system," the statement said.
Experts have said the case will largely depend on what the jurors believe happened in the struggle before Martin's killing.
Judge Nelson denied a defense request for a delay in the trial in the opening courtroom session on Monday.
In addition to presiding over jury selection, Nelson is also due to finish hearing another pre-trial motion over efforts by the defense to block testimony by audio experts suggesting that Martin can be heard screaming for help in the background of a 911 call, moments before he was shot dead.
A hearing for defense lawyers to challenge the methods used by prosecution audio experts began last Thursday and had to be carried over after it dragged on for three days, including a special Saturday court session.
Lead defense attorney Mark O'Mara has called the 911 recording "the most significant piece of evidence in the case."
If the identity of the person crying for help can be established, that would indicate who was dominant in the deadly confrontation, an important issue to Zimmerman's claim that he shot in self-defense.
At issue is whether the expert analyses were derived from techniques generally accepted in the scientific community, or through some new, untested approach.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by John Wallace)