The jury trying George Zimmerman on charges of second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin will be allowed to consider convicting him on the lesser charge of manslaughter, the judge ruled Thursday.
Allowing the jury to consider the lesser charge means that even if the prosecution did not succeed in persuading the jury that Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder, they could still find him criminally culpable in Martin's death.
Zimmerman's defense team was seeking for no lesser charges to be included, but Judge Debra Nelson sided with the prosecution Thursday morning, as both sides jousted over the proposed instructions that will be given to the jury before they reach a verdict. The 29-year-old Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, claiming he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot 17-year-old Martin during a confrontation in Sanford, Fla., in February of last year.
The prosecution also sought to include the lesser charge of third-degree felony murder, with the underlying felony being child abuse. Martin was 17 and therefore a minor when he was killed. The state document charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder in April of last year describes Martin as "a human being under the age of 18."
Judge Nelson ruled there is no basis for the charge and that the jury would not consider the child-abuse allegations. Defense Attorney Don West called the state's request to include the third-degree felony charge "outrageous."
"It's not fair to me, it's not fair to Mr. Zimmerman, or Mr. O'Mara or the court for this to happen like this right now. I need time to sort this out if the court is going to give any consideration to this remarkable, remarkable, suggestion by the state that somehow...when Trayvon Martin is shot straddling George Zimmerman, pummelling him, that George Zimmerman is engaged in child abuse?" West said accusing prosecutors of deliberately requesting inclusion of the third-degree felony murder charge at the last minute so the defense would be unable to prepare. "This was a trick, doesn't the court realize, this was a trick by the state?"
In response to West, Judge Nelson tapped at her laptop, then read out loud from the state supreme court's jury instructions, which she told West were online.
"These are part of the jury instructions that have been known to this court since I've been on the bench," Nelson said. "The possibility of a category two [included offense] was known to counsel at the beginning of the trial."
Nelson ultimately denied the prosecution's request to include the third degree felony murder charges, however. The jury will only consider whether to convict Zimmerman on charges of second degree murder or first degree manslaughter.
Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.