George Zimmerman trial: Jury can consider lesser charge of manslaughter

The judge in the George Zimmerman murder trial will give the jury the option of convicting him of a lesser charge, despite objections from the defense. Some legal analysts say prosecutors were not confident of their case for second-degree murder in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Gary W. Green/Orlandon Sentinel/AP
Judge Debra Nelson gives instructions to attorneys during George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla., Thursday. Mr. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, but the judge said she will instruct jurors that they can also consider the lesser charge of manslaughter.

After three weeks of testimony ranging from wrenching to bizarre, Seminole County Court Judge Debra Nelson agreed to allow a six-woman jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial to consider convicting Mr. Zimmerman of manslaughter, a lesser charge than the initial second-degree murder charge.

"The court will give the instruction on manslaughter as a Category One," Judge Nelson said, in a significant development on Thursday.

While it’s not unusual for prosecutors to try to hedge their bets, some criminal justice experts say the move indicates that the state has doubts that the jury would find that Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, out of ill will or spite, the foundation of a second-degree murder conviction.

The prosecution isn’t “blind to the fact that they haven’t proven second-degree murder,” Florida defense attorney Jose Baez, who successfully defended Casey Anthony against capital murder charges for allegedly killing her own daughter, told USA Today.

A second-degree murder conviction could mean life in prison for the 29-year-old former neighborhood watch captain. A manslaughter charge in Florida carries up to 30 years in state prison.

The jury will return to Seminole County Court in Sanford, Fla., at 1 p.m. to begin to hear closing arguments.

The trial has captivated much of the nation, being the closing chapter of a parable about racial stereotyping, gun rights, and societal crime fears. Trayvon, who'd had some trouble in school but had never been arrested, was returning from a convenience store with candy and a drink when he, according to testimony, told a friend on the phone, Rachel Jeantel, that a “creepy, white, kill-my-neighbors cracker" was following him.

The shooting sparked massive protests after Sanford, Fla., police refused to arrest Zimmerman, saying his self-defense claim couldn’t be countered. The racial specter that still hangs over the case is the question of whether police – and society – would have reacted the same way had an armed black man pursued a white teenager, and then shot him dead after a fight.

In Florida, authorities have stepped up riot control planning amid fears that a not-guilty verdict could spark unrest. (Sanford is the city that ran Jackie Robinson out of town during spring training in 1946, as he began his bid to break Major League baseball's race barrier.)

Zimmerman’s attorneys, Mark O’Mara and Don West, introduced witnesses this week who testified about intentions and justifications during the brief encounter between Zimmerman and Trayvon, which began when Zimmerman pegged the teenager as suspicious and began following him on a rainy February night in 2012.

Dennis Root, a private eye, testified that Zimmerman was a poor fighter who may have run out of options as Trayvon straddled him, punching down at his face. Zimmerman's nose was dislocated and the back of his head was cut before he pulled out a Kel-Tec 9 mm and fired it at close range at Trayvon.

Asked by Mr. O’Mara whether Zimmerman had any other choice, Root said, “I don’t believe he did.” But he answered a prosecutor by saying that, in general, Zimmerman had “other options.”

Such testimony, as well as testimony from a black former neighbor about Zimmerman’s interest in stopping crime in the neighborhood, may have undermined the state’s strongest contention: that Zimmerman profiled, pursued, confronted, then killed Trayvon out of malice.

Such a charge is hard to prove in a case in which the two people are strangers, and many legal experts suggest that the state has struggled to make that charge stick.

But the broader question for the jury is the extent to which Zimmerman bears responsibility, if any, for Trayvon’s death.

For the most part, prosecutors trying to prove "ill will" are relying on tape recordings of 911 calls from Zimmerman describing “punks” who “always get away” before police arrive. “George Zimmerman thought he knew Trayvon Martin, but he did not know Trayvon Martin,” State Assistant Attorney Richard Mantei told the court last week.

A hoodie sweatshirt shielding his head from a steady rain, Trayvon was walking back to the home where his dad was staying in the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated neighborhood when Zimmerman spotted him, began to follow him, and called a nonemergency police number. Asked by the dispatcher whether he was following Trayvon, Zimmerman said yes. “We don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher said.

Not long after, eyewitnesses reported two people fighting and yelling. Then, a loud shriek and a single gun shot was recorded on a 911 call. The mothers of Zimmerman and Trayvon each testified that it was her son who screamed for help.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations Friday.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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