"Knock, knock. Who's there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? Alright, good. You're on the jury."
Defense attorney Don West's decision to begin a murder trial with a knock-knock joke might have been a questionable one, but his attempted bit of humor's basic premise was spot on: By the time opening statements arrived, there were few people left in Florida's Seminole County -- and perhaps much of America -- who did not know the names George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.
The immediate, intense reaction to Martin's shooting and to Zimmerman's not being charged for 46 days has maintained high throughout the run-up to and duration of the trial. Stand your ground. Gun rights. Racial profiling. The range of broader issues served up by the circumstances of Martin's death all but guaranteed its ability to arouse passions.
Those protest-filled days and weeks following the shooting -- when the NAACP marched through Sanford, Florida, a Million Hoodie rally swarmed New York City and Zimmerman supporters flooded his PayPal account with donations totaling six-figures -- even caught the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, who issued a statement on the incident. "I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this," he said. "We will get to the bottom of exactly what happened."
And that's what we have been witnessing these past three weeks. Disputes over whose voice is heard screaming on a 911 call, experts offering conflicting takes on the respective positions of Martin and Zimmerman during their fatal struggle; all of it an attempt to "get to the bottom of exactly what happened." All of it then also provoking fresh waves of anger, debate and interest which have spread outward from the Seminole County Courthouse, engulfing Sanford and radiating across the country.
But in contrast to the initial outcry after the shooting, the reaction once the case reached the courtroom has been less on-the-streets and more online. Outright anger replaced by anxious armchair analysis and an unrelenting tension experienced by proxy stakeholders on both sides. Those using Twitter as a release made terms like "Trayvon" and hashtags including "#ZimmermanTrial" or "#TrayvonMartin" a permanent fixture among the site's trending topics every weekday for more than a month.
Prosecution has tried over & over to say Trayvon wasn't on TOP- & then lays on floor on his back demonstrating various #Zimmerman gun angles
— greybeard (@greybeard411) July 10, 2013
1:Walk after a kid for no reason. 2:Call 911 for no reason. 3:Ignore their instructions. 4:Kill the kid. Very difficult case #zimmermantrial
— John (@linnyitssn) July 10, 2013
The names of many individual witnesses, such as Rachel Jeantel and Bao Shiping, became national topics of conversation and trended in the United States during their testimony. Even during the uneventful morning of July 9, when attorneys were debating a motion outside the presence of the jury and the day's testimony had not even begun, #ZimmermanTrial was again atop Twitter's trending list.
If the trial was making a significant impact on social media, in at least one very prominent instance the reverse was also true. The testimony via Skype of prosecution witness Scott Pleasants was interrupted for several minutes as people bombarded the California resident with video calls. Apparently the work of some 4Chan users, the prank led the court to dump Skype and forced Pleasants to give the rest of his testimony from a standard telephone.
— Nicole Cameron (@Nicole_Cameron) July 3, 2013
But even as Internet comments sections overflow with explosive exchanges, observations and accusations from both sides, back in Sanford, residents are dealing with -- and preparing for -- the real-life consequences of their town being the focus of a national legal obsession.
"We have more to offer than almost any town can and the sad thing is that's overshadowed by one person's decision, one night," Sanford business owner Steve Flowers lamented to Orlando's Central Florida News. "And the world's focused on that, not what Sanford truly is."
During the trial, and while holding their breath for it all to be over already, people in Sanford are still following the proceedings closely. Surveying his neighborhood, one resident told a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, "Look at this street: Usually everybody is out and about, walking around. But everybody is inside, watching the trial on TV."
Perhaps surprisingly, the city of 58,000 hasn't seen the protests or rallies that were so common in the shooting's immediate aftermath over the past month . A euphemistically titled "Free Speech Zone" outside the courthouse, for Martin or Zimmerman supporters to vent their views, has been practically empty most days.
With deliberations now underway, this may all still prove to be the calm before the storm. Regardless of the verdict, a very large group of people will be angry and insistent that justice was not served. Fearful of riots or vandalism in Martin's native South Florida, the Broward County Sheriff's Office has already put out this video urging calm after the jury delivers their decision.
"Make a choice to raise your voice, and not your hands!" two teenagers -- not coincidentally, one white and one black -- rap, while standing alongside police officers. "Let's back up and choose not to act up." That the comments beneath the clip are loaded with racist language and typical Internet vile only underscore the video's necessity.
Pastors in multiple Sanford churches are holding "Noon Day Prayer" sessions on July 15 to "pray for our community" after the verdict comes down. In describing the prayer sessions' purpose to the Orlando Sentinel, the Rev. Charlie Holt might have been speaking for a much larger audience than he realized in surveying the landscape and offering hopefully that "After the trial is over, and the media attention is gone, we will remain as a community of neighbors."
Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN