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George Zimmerman trial's key question: Will he testify?

Opening statements in George Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial are set to begin Monday, as lawyer's for the defendant applaud a judge's decision to not allow voice experts to testify about who is screaming on an emergency call. NBC's Ron Mott reports.

The jury has been seated, the witnesses lined up and the exhibits gathered, but the trial of George Zimmerman began Monday with an unanswered question: Will he testify?

Lawyers are set to deliver opening statements with clashing accounts of why Zimmerman, 29, shot unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, 17, on a rainy February 2012 night in Sanford, Fla., sparking widespread protest and national debate that touched on race, guns and self-defense.

Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said she will attend the trial every day.

 “I ask that you pray for me and my family because I don’t want any other mother to have to experience what I’m going through now,” she said at a short press conference before court on Monday morning.

Immediately after the court was called to session, Zimmerman’s parents and wife were ordered to leave the courtroom in accordance with a law that bars possible witnesses from hearing the testimony of other witnesses. The Martin family’s lawyer, who may be called to the stand by the defense, was also asked to leave.

Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer who has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, says he pulled the trigger in self-defense after Martin attacked him — and legal experts say it’s common in self-defense cases for the defendant to take the stand.

Joe Burbank / AP

Lawyers will deliver opening statements Monday in the trial of George Zimmerman.

But as jury selection ended last week — with six women picked to decide Zimmerman’s fate — defense attorney Mark O’Mara said he doesn’t know yet whether his client will take the oath and tell his side of the story.

“That is a dynamic decision that has to be made within the context of a trial,” O’Mara said.

“This case will fall on the fact that the state will not be able to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt with their evidence that a crime was committed by my client.”

Legal analyst Kendall Coffey, who is following the proceedings closely, said O’Mara and his co-counsel, Don West, are unlikely to decide whether to call Zimmerman until the prosecution has rested.

"In self-defense cases, the defendant generally takes the stand. It’s hard to establish self-defense without the defendant explaining why they killed someone,” he said.

Yet, having Zimmerman testify carries risks.

Coffey said it’s unclear, given his limited public exposure, if he would be a good witness. In addition, getting on the stand would allow prosecutors to “drill down” on any possible inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s statements and bring in potentially unflattering details from his past that might otherwise be off limits, Coffey said.

Courtesy of Sybrina Fulton

Trayvon Martin in a Feb. 18, 2012, photo taken at his mother's birthday party. Martin was killed on February 26, 2012.

“If I’m Mark O’Mara, I’m working it every way I can to keep George Zimmerman off the stand,” Coffey said.

In lieu of Zimmerman’s testimony, the defense can try to establish self-defense through statements he gave to police, which the prosecutors are likely to introduce, and through any witnesses who saw or heard the confrontation.

“They can also put on the medical evidence,” Coffey said, referring to photos and medical reports about injuries to Zimmerman’s face and head.

“It may well be that those thousand words a picture is worth are better than a thousand words from George Zimmerman’s mouth.
“But it’s going to be a game-time decision.”

The case has been in pregame mode for most of June with jury selection and pre-trial hearings. The defense won a ruling over the weekend when Judge Debra Nelson ruled that experts cannot testify about who can be heard screaming on a 911 call from the night of the shooting.

Pool / Getty Images

Judge Debra Nelson will preside over the trial, which is expected to last up to four weeks.

A potential prosecution witness had testified in a report that using voice-recognition technology, he was able to discern Martin saying, “I’m begging you.” Defense experts disagreed and said the methodology was unreliable, and the judge agreed.

The jury can still hear the 911 call, and other witnesses – such as family or friends of Zimmerman and Martin -- can testify about it.

Editor's note: George Zimmerman has sued NBCUniversal for defamation, and the company has strongly denied his allegations.

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