SANFORD, Fla.— Residents had braced for tensions and traffic ahead of the trial of George Zimmerman. Instead, there have been empty seats in the courtroom and little fanfare outside as the first week of jury selection wrapped up Friday.
The city expected thousands of protesters to fill a so-called "free speech zone" set up outside of the courthouse. But only about a dozen people showed up on opening day Monday, the first day of the trial. Just a handful of people have gathered there each day since.
Seats reserved for public spectators in the courtroom have been largely empty on most days. And even local activists who played a role in planning the large rallies and protests that engulfed Sanford after Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin last year say they are reserving their energy for when testimony begins in the case.
“Once jury selection is over we’ll all be down there,” said activist Francis Oliver.
Jury selection could extend well into June for Zimmerman’s trial for second-degree murder. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty, saying he shot the unarmed 17-year-old on a rainy night in February of last year in self-defense.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman after the shooting, citing his rights under the state’s expansive self-defense laws. The case then drew national and international media attention and sparked debate over race relations and gun-control. Martin was black. Zimmerman, 29, who served as a volunteer neighborhood watch captain, is of white and Hispanic descent.
After the killing, protestors packed local parks while rallies spilled into downtown Sanford’s usually quiet streets.
This week, the scene has been markedly different.
“Personally, I thought there would be more going on,” Mayor Jeff Triplett told msnbc Friday. “I thought there would be more people there, but in today’s media you can watch it online, you can sit under an air-conditioner at your house and watch it on TV.”
Triplett said that much of the early protests in the wake of Martin’s death were in response to the lack of an immediate arrest. But that anger abated once Zimmerman was formally charged.
“The demonstrators and such, they got what they wanted,” Triplett said. “[Zimmerman] will be in front of a jury of his peers and I think everybody wants to see the process work out.”
Local law enforcement and community leaders have held meetings to prepare and promote peace if tensions surrounding the case became worrisome. City leaders walked through their final security and logistics plans. To date the city has spent more than $500,000 in preparation for the case, including extra security details during rallies last year and for added security assigned to the courthouse for the trial, according to City Manager Norton Bonaparte.
Little of that money and exhaustive preparation seemed necessary this week.
Jury selection has proceeded as the defense and prosecution attempt to whittle down a pool of hundreds of prospective jurors to just six, with a handful of alternates. The court had enacted a lottery system for residents who wanted to sit-in on the proceedings. But as the week went on the seats reserved for the public grew emptier.
Seats reserved for members of media have been filled each day and members of both Martin’s and Zimmerman’s families have been in attendance.
On Thursday, Valarie Houston, an African-American pastor and member of Sanford Pastors Connecting, occupied one of four courtroom seats reserved for clergy. She noted with surprise that few people had shown up but predicted that more would come once jury selection was completed.
City leaders say that even if the public response in town and in the courthouse remains muted, the pre-trial preparations were not a waste.
“You always have to prepare. We didn’t know what to expect,” said Triplett, the mayor.
Bonaparte said he believes interest in the case and action around the courthouse will pick up once testimony begins. “People are waiting for testimony in terms of what actually took place when Trayvon Martin was shot on February 26,” Bonaparte said. “So I wouldn’t say I’m surprised about the turnout so far.”
Jury selection could conclude as early as late next week. The trial is expected to last another two to four weeks after the jury is selected.
Note: George Zimmerman has sued NBCUniversal for defamation. The company has strongly denied his allegations.