SANFORD, Fla.--Jurors in the George Zimmerman case will be allowed to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter when they begin their deliberations on whether the neighborhood watch volunteer murdered Trayvon Martin or shot the unarmed teenager in self-defense.
Closing arguments in the case are scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon, but lawyers spent a testy morning arguing about what instruction Judge Debra S. Nelson will give the six-women jury. The instruction, or charge, is essentially the blueprint of how the jurors will weigh the weeks of evidence and more than 55 witnesses who took the stand.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of Martin, 17, on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman maintains he shot in self-defense when Martin attacked him.
The prosecution on Thursday was seeking to broaden the judge's charge to allow jurors to consider lesser charges than second-degree murder, which requires the proof that Zimmerman acted with ill will, spite or hatred in shooting Martin. The defense sought to keep the jury's choice to either the harder-to-prove top charge of second-degree murder or outright acquittal.
Nelson questioned Zimmerman about the all-or-nothing strategy and the defendant said he agreed with that approach. Speaking of Zimmerman, West said: "His position is the state has charged him with second degree murder, and they should be required to prove it if they can," he said.
Nelson ruled in favor of the prosecution request and included manslaughter among the options the jury can consider.
On Wednesday, the state indicated that it also wanted to include an aggravated assault charge but on Thursday morning dropped that plan for a request to add third-degree felony murder based on a theory that Martin was killed while Zimmerman was committing a felony -- child abuse, because Martin was younger than 18.
The additional charge "simply requires that the victim be under the age of 18 and be subjected to … child abuse," prosecutor Richard Mantei told the judge.
West, who has sparred with Nelson before, rose from his seat.
"Oh my God. Just when I thought this case couldn't get any more bizarre," West said, as he responded to the state's theory of child abuse allegations.
"The state is seeking third-degree murder based on child abuse," an incredulous West said. "Is the court going to give this any serious contention or consideration? Because if so, we have a lot of talking to do."
Nelson replied that the request for the lesser charge required a felony, and child abuse fell into that category.
West argued that the state had "lying in wait, collecting all this loosely connected child abuse case law" to use at the last minute in a new charge.
"Child abuse? Really? This is not fair to me, Mr. Zimmerman [defense counsel] Mr. [Mark] O'Mara or the court. ... This is outrageous," West said.
"This was a trick," West said. "Doesn't the court realize this was a trick by the state...."
Nelson put off a decision on the prosecution request.