SANFORD, Fla. - In an unmistakable setback for George Zimmerman, the jury at the neighborhood watch captain's second-degree murder trial was given the option Thursday of convicting him on the lesser charge of manslaughter in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Judge Debra Nelson issued her ruling over the objections of Zimmerman's lawyers shortly before a prosecutor delivered a closing argument in which he portrayed the defendant as an aspiring police officer who assumed Martin was up to no good and took the law into his own hands.
"A teenager is dead. He is dead through no fault of his own," prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda told the jurors. "He is dead because a man made assumptions. … Unfortunately because his assumptions were wrong, Trayvon Benjamin Martin no longer walks this Earth."
The six jurors will have three options when they start deliberations as early as Friday: guilty of second-degree murder, guilty of manslaughter and not guilty.
Zimmerman attorney Don West had argued an all-or-nothing strategy, saying the only charge that should be put before the jury is second-degree murder.
To win a second-degree murder conviction, prosecutors must prove Zimmerman showed ill will, hatred or spite. To get a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors must show only that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification.
Allowing the jurors to consider manslaughter could give those who aren't convinced the shooting amounted to murder a way to hold Zimmerman responsible.
Because of the way Florida law imposes longer sentences for crimes committed with a gun, manslaughter could end up carrying a penalty as heavy as the one for second-degree murder: life in prison.