Jurors considering whether to find George Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder will also be able to ponder manslaughter as an alternative charge, the judge in the case has ruled.
The decision, made over the objections of Zimmerman’s defense counsel, Don West, would reduce Zimmerman’s potential sentence from life imprisonment to anything up to 30 years if convicted on the new, lesser charge.
While legal commentators believe that the state has struggled to prove the second-degree murder requirement that Zimmerman acted with “ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent” when he shot dead Trayvon Martin, 17, on February 26, 2012, manslaughter removes that stipulation and is defined as unlawful killing without malice.
But in his closing argument Friday, lead defense lawyer Mark O’Mara will argue that, regardless of the charge, “self-defense is self-defense” and that Zimmerman’s fears for his own life that night justified his actions.
Thursday’s “charging conference,” in which Judge Debra Nelson hammered out with both sides the charges and wording of the legal guidance that she will issue to the six women jurors after the defense’s closing arguments Friday, brought more heated scenes in courtroom 5D of Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Florida.
The surprise proposal by the state to also include a lesser charge of third-degree felony murder premised on child abuse—the child abuse being Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of a 17-year-old—prompted anger from West, who accused the state of having ambushed him with the news in an “oh-by-the-way” email at 7: 30 a.m., 90 minutes before the charging conference began.
“Oh. My. Gosh,” West said. “Just when I thought this case couldn’t get any more bizarre, the state is seeking third-degree murder based on child abuse? Is the court going to give this any serious consideration? If so, we have a lot of talking to do,” he said to Nelson.
“It’s outrageous—outrageous—that the state would seek to do this at this point in the case. It’s just hard for me to imagine that the court could take this seriously.”
Nelson granted West more time to research case law on which to base his objections, but not until after a further terse exchange over other legal issues.
“You continually disagree with this court every time I make a ruling,” Nelson admonished West after he lost a bid to have the judge include in her instructions to the jury a certain item of legal advice.
“Do not continue to argue with the court after I have ruled. If I have made a mistake in this case you will appeal ... a higher court can determine whether or not I have made a mistake,” she said.
Zimmerman, 29, killed Martin with a single bullet through the heart after seeing him walking him through his neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, on the night of February 26, 2012, and deeming him “suspicious.”
He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.