By Barbara Liston
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Jury selection moved slowly on Tuesday in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch volunteer who claims self-defense in the February 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Selecting a jury to decide Zimmerman's fate in the racially charged case that captivated the United States for much of 2012 could take as long as two weeks, according to legal experts. Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second degree murder and could be sentenced to life in prison if he is convicted.
After the prosecution and defense lawyers finish questioning potential jurors from a pool of hundreds, a second round of more detailed questioning will begin in the search for a panel of six with as many as 4 alternates.
The prosecution and defense got through just four prospective jurors in the preliminary round of questioning in the Seminole County criminal court on Monday, prompting widespread concerns that the process could be even slower than expected.
"They better start moving, otherwise they will be there till Christmas," said David Weinstein, a former state prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer.
Three more potential jurors were questioned on Tuesday before a late-morning break.
A potential juror identified only as "B-35" said he was alone among his family and friends in not forming an opinion about Zimmerman's guilt. The man, apparently African American, said that he did not believe the Martin killing was racially motivated.
"They were all pro Mr. Martin," the man said of his family and friends. He said he preferred to listen to all the evidence and "let the chips fall where they may."
At the time of the shooting Zimmerman was the self-appointed watch captain in a gated community in this central Florida town outside Orlando. He killed Martin with a single bullet from a 9mm handgun that lodged in his chest.
The case, which fueled protests across the country, inspired national debate about race, guns and equal justice because police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman on grounds that he acted within the bounds of Florida's self-defense laws.
Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Trayvon Martin's family, has said repeatedly that Zimmerman would have been arrested immediately if he were black and Martin, who was 17 when he was gunned down, had been white.
Crump said he was not surprised by the lack of more black people in the first group of 20 prospective jurors who appeared in open court on Monday, given the demographics of Florida's Seminole County, where Sanford is the largest city.
The county's population is 66 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
In the questioning of potential jurors on Monday, aimed at weeding out anyone who may have been affected by extensive pre-trial media coverage of the case, one identified only as "B-30" said he did not follow news coverage closely. As with many fatal encounters, he said there may have been "fault on both sides" in the rapid chain of events leading to Martin's death on February 26, 2012.
Zimmerman and Martin, who was a student at a Miami-area high school at the time of his death and a guest of one of the homeowners in the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, were both in the "wrong place at the wrong time," the prospective juror said.
(This story has been corrected to fix panel to 6 and up to 4 alternates instead of 12 and 6 in 3rd paragraph)
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Grant McCool)