Court of public opinion looms large in George Zimmerman murder trial

On paper, Seminole County, Fla., criminal case No. 2012-001083-CFA is a second-degree murder trial, one that could send George Zimmerman to prison for life.

But in the court of public opinion, the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin has roused a national conversation about racial profiling, self-defense, gun control, vigilantism, civil rights and more.

A trial that speaks to something more than just the individuals involved is good for civic discourse, says Jason Johnson, a political science and communications professor at Hiram College in Ohio.

“That is a very good result of this case,” Johnson told Yahoo News. “Depending on your demographics and your experience, there are different parts of this case that pop out to you.”

Opening arguments in the high-profile trial, which will be streamed live on Yahoo, begin at 9 a.m. ET Monday.

Zimmerman was a volunteer crime watchman in his gated Sanford, Fla., community when he shot and killed Martin during a scuffle on a dark neighborhood sidewalk in February 2012.

Minutes before the shooting, Zimmerman phoned police to report Martin, 17, as a suspicious person and, against the advice of a 911 dispatcher, continued to follow him through the neighborhood. Martin, a Miami high school student, had been at a nearby convenience store and was walking back to a family friend’s house where was he visiting.

[PHOTOS: See pictures of key players and evidence in the case]

Zimmerman, who is of mixed heritage and self-identifies as Hispanic, says he shot Martin in self-defense. He maintains that the teen attacked him, pounded his head into the pavement and tried to get his holstered handgun. Martin died at the scene from a single gunshot to the chest. Sanford police didn’t initially arrest Zimmerman, who suffered a bloody nose and head lacerations in the fight.

While no one witnessed the confrontation, Martin had been on his cellphone with his girlfriend shortly before the scuffle. The woman, identified in court records as Witness No. 8, could provide key testimony for the state's argument that Zimmerman pursued Martin. A neighbor heard the pair fighting and was on the phone with 911 when the fatal shot was fired. Faint screaming is heard in the background of the call. Prosecutors say it was Martin. Zimmerman says it was him. On Friday, Judge Debra Nelson is expected to rule if audio experts will be allowed to testify.

Many viewed the early lack of charges against Zimmerman as unequal justice for a black victim. More than 2 million people signed an online petition demanding “Justice for Trayvon Martin,” and demonstrators protested in Sanford and elsewhere across the country. President Barack Obama drew criticism from some when he addressed the tragedy during a public briefing in the White House Rose Garden.

“All of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen,” Obama said 19 days before Zimmerman was eventually charged by a special prosecutor assigned to take over for local police.

“But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

Johnson, the professor, says the president’s remarks proved to be pivotal.

“That’s when we knew that this case was going to be about more than this particular kid getting killed,” Johnson says. “It was going to be about notions of violence, and respect, and profiling in America in general.”

These issues have nothing to do with Martin’s death, says Robert Zimmerman, George’s father. He recently released an e-book titled, “Florida v. Zimmerman: Uncovering the Malicious Prosecution of My Son.”

“Every attempt was made to portray the events as a white, racist, neighborhood watch volunteer stalking, pursuing, and then murdering a little black boy simply getting candy for his little brother,” Robert Zimmerman writes in the book. “Absolutely none of this portrayal was at all accurate, and clearly known not to be true by individuals involved.”

[RELATED: A look at the jurors for George Zimmerman's trial]

Zimmerman, himself a former judge, contends prosecutors are on a “politically motivated witch hunt” fueled by “race-baiters” seeking fortune and fame.

“A wholly justified and necessary action by George turned into a national issue,” he writes. “What Americans have been told by the media for well over a year will finally be exposed and the truth presented. The egregious and self serving conduct of the Scheme Team, prosecutors, and others will hopefully be fully exposed.”

According to public documents, an FBI investigation didn't uncover any evidence that Martin’s death was motivated by race. However, Johnson said the case still has racial components that can’t be overlooked.

“Race is a lot more nuanced than we often report and discuss in public discourse,” he said. “This is one of those cases that’s going to demonstrate how nuanced it really is.”

While the country debates the role race played, Sanford continues to heal from the community unrest. For several months, many of the town’s clergy have been gathering with federal and local mediators to share their congregation’s concerns.

Next week they’ll play peacekeepers at the trial. Four seats in the courtroom are set aside for local ministers, while other pastors plan to mingle among spectators outside the courthouse.