Florida jury in Zimmerman case asks about manslaughter charge

SANFORD, Florida Sat Jul 13, 2013 7:25pm EDT

1 of 12. George Zimmerman enters the courtroom for his trial in Sanford, Florida July 13, 2013 during the trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Credit: Reuters/Gary W. Green/Pool

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SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida jury deciding the fate of George Zimmerman for killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin asked for clarification on Saturday on manslaughter, the less-serious charge in the case that has sparked debate on race and guns.

The panel of six women, which has deliberated more than 12 hours over two days, could decide on manslaughter, second-degree murder or acquittal for Zimmerman, who says he shot the 17-year-old Martin in self-defense.

"My guess is that they are looking hard at it to settle on manslaughter, that's what that usually means," said Teresa Sopp, a Jacksonville-based defense attorney.

Zimmerman, 29, said Martin attacked him on the night of February 26, 2012, in the central Florida town of Sanford. Prosecutors contend the neighborhood watch coordinator in his gated community was a "wannabe cop" who tracked down the teenager and shot him without justification.

Judge Debra Nelson responded to the note by asking the jury to pose a more specific question about manslaughter.

To convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder, which carries the possibility of a life prison sentence, the jury must find Zimmerman acted with ill will, spite or hatred.

In the case of manslaughter, according to the instructions read by the judge, jurors must find that Zimmerman committed an act "that was not merely negligent, justified or excusable and which caused death." The crime carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

The jurors, who are sequestered, heard 12 days of testimony and two days of closing arguments before entering deliberations.

Although small compared with the protests that erupted after the killing last year, about 100 demonstrators braved the blistering Florida sun to gather outside the Seminole County courthouse as the deliberations proceeded.

Only a handful, including one brandishing a sign that read, "George You Got Hit, You Must Acquit," appeared to support Zimmerman.

Carrying placards reading: "Jail the Killer" and "Justice 4 Trayvon," many called for a murder conviction. Some wore T-shirts with an image of Zimmerman in the crosshairs of a gun, with the words "Yes Sir ... Creepy Ass Cracker" on the back.

"Creepy ass cracker" were the words Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel told the court he used to describe Zimmerman on a cell phone call moments before he was shot.

In an interview on CNN, defense attorney Mark O'Mara said Zimmerman supporters had sent contributions to help pay his legal costs, which have topped $1 million. He made clear donations identified as coming from white supremacists or obvious racists were not accepted.

QUESTION ON MANSLAUGHTER

At the courthouse, Nelson said she would allow the jurors to set their own working hours. The panel worked through lunch on Saturday, returning only at about 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) to ask for the clarification on the manslaughter charge.

The saga began on the rainy February night when Zimmerman called police to report a suspicious person in his neighborhood. That was Martin, visiting the home of his father's fiancée.

In the fight that ensued, Zimmerman suffered several head injuries and he shot Martin once through the heart with a Kel Tec 9 mm pistol loaded with hollow-point bullets.

Ronald Fulton, 50, Martin's wheelchair-bound uncle who was close to the slain 17-year-old, described waiting for the verdict as difficult.

"It's like everybody wants to know the next step of what's happening, and that's why it's so tense," Fulton told Reuters in a phone interview from his Miami home.

"If he is acquitted ... what would be the recourse from that?" Fulton asked. "These things are weighing on me heavily."

Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, believing his account of self-defense. That provoked demonstrations, which spread nationwide, accusing Zimmerman of racial profiling and demanding his arrest.

Zimmerman was arrested 45 days after the shooting, after the Sanford police chief stepped down and the governor appointed a special prosecutor who pressed second-degree murder charges.

Officials confirmed on Saturday that the office of the special prosecutor fired her information technology director, Ben Kruidbos, who had testified he found evidence on Martin's cell phone that defense lawyers say the state never turned over.

He received a termination letter from the state attorney's office on Friday, saying he was "completely untrustworthy" and that he could never again "step foot in this office."

Kruidbos testified last month that he found embarrassing photos on Martin's phone that included pictures of a clump of jewelry on a bed, underage nude females, marijuana plants and a hand holding a semiautomatic pistol.

Defense attorneys alleged the data was not turned over to them in the evidence exchange process, known as discovery. The state's attorney's office rejected any allegation of wrongdoing or withholding of evidence in the letter dismissing Kruidbos.

(Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami and Barbara Liston in Sanford; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Peter Cooney)

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