SANFORD, Fla. - State prosecutors are asking the judge in the Trayvon Martin murder case to instruct the jury to consider lesser charges - manslaughter and aggravated assault - when they begin deliberations Friday.
Zimmerman's attorneys have objected, and Judge Debra Nelson will hold a hearing Thursday morning to decide whether jurors should consider the new charges. The jury would still have the option of convicting Zimmerman, 29, of the second-degree murder charge that prosecutors sought when the trial began.
The last-minute maneuvering has been seen by some legal experts as an indication that prosecutors are not as confident about their chances for a second-degree murder conviction. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, has been portrayed by prosecutors as a wanna-be cop who shot Trayvon, who is black, after a confrontation in a gated residential community.
"They aren't going to go all or nothing," said Jose Baez, a Florida criminal defense attorney, of state prosecutors. "They aren't blind to the fact that they haven't proven second-degree murder." Baez successfully defended Casey Anthony, a Florida mother accused of killing her daughter in a high-profile capital murder case.
Zimmerman says he acted in self-defense after Trayvon sucker punched him and began beating him. The jury is expected to start deliberating on Friday.
Second-degree murder in Florida carries a possible life sentence. If convicted of manslaughter, Zimmerman could get up to 30 years. Aggravated assault would carry no more than a five-year prison term.
Prosecutors have maintained that Zimmerman profiled Trayvon and assumed an unarmed teen was a threat to his community. They called 38 witnesses to testify, including some who said Zimmerman was the aggressor and continuously played up that Zimmerman followed Trayvon.
Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, said he will argue against the lesser charges being considered.
"Self-defense is self-defense," O'Mara said. "What happened out there was not a crime, so in that context there shouldn't have been" any charges.
Speculation that Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, profiled, followed and murdered the black teen sparked racial controversy and protests across the nation last year. Zimmerman says that race did not factor into his actions.
Also Wednesday, Zimmerman told Nelson that he will not testify and his lawyers asked for an immediate judgment of acquittal, which was denied.
Earlier in the day, Nelson rejected defense requests to allow into evidence photos and text messages from Trayvon Martin's phone as well as a computer animation of the slaying.
Nelson said she will allow defense lawyers to show jurors the computer animation during closing arguments. However, she rejected the defense bid to present the animation as actual evidence, which means the animation can't be reviewed by jurors during their deliberations.
The animation, from a defense witness, depicts the 17-year-old Trayvon walking up to Zimmerman and punching him - and later shows the teen on top of Zimmerman when Trayvon is shot.
The ruling concerning Trayvon's phone means the jury won't see text messages that discussed fighting, purchasing a gun and a photo of a gun.
The text messages discuss Trayvon being sore after winning several rounds of a fight, Zimmerman's attorney, Don West said. Trayvon also discussed buying a gun and took pictures of a hand holding a gun, West said.
Prosecutors said there's no way of proving Trayvon sent the text messages or took the photos. They also argued that the information from the cellphone doesn't have anything to do with the shooting and Trayvon's death in February 2012.
Testifying for the defense earlier in the day was Dennis Root, a safety and law enforcement instructor who is also a use of force consultant.
Root testified that he offered his services to Zimmerman's lawyers after hearing about the shooting on the news. Once hired, Root said he reviewed evidence in the case including 911 calls, witness statements and reports from police and the medical examiner.
Root also evaluated the physical capabilities of Trayvon and Zimmerman and said he found that Trayvon was "physically fit" while Zimmerman was "not a fighter." Zimmerman would have been "lacking," in a fight with the teen, Root said.
Evidence and photos of Zimmerman's injuries illustrate that there was a fistfight and support Zimmerman's story, Root told the jury.
"It's clear he was struck and his head made contact with the concrete," said Root, who also interviewed Zimmerman to form his opinion. Zimmerman would have found himself physically "lacking" in a confrontation with Trayvon, Root said.
Later, O'Mara asked Root whether Root believed Zimmerman had any other option than to shoot Trayvon.
"I don't believe he did," Root replied.
In another moment, O'Mara and Assistant State Attorney John Guy took turns demonstrating on a mannequin the many ways the shooting could have happened. Jurors, interested in seeing the possibilities, stood up to watch the men struggle with the mannequin.
Root later acknowledged that Trayvon could have been trying to get away or backing up from Zimmerman when the teen was shot.
He also added that he didn't query Zimmerman about how Trayvon approached him, how the fight may have moved, and how Zimmerman dropped several items away from Trayvon's body. Root also said he didn't give much weight to statements by Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon moments before the shooting, or to the time gap between when Zimmerman ended his call with police and shot Trayvon.
Defense attorneys also called Olivia Bertalan to testify. She is a former neighbor of Zimmerman who had to hide in a room while two black men in their late teens broke into her home and robbed her in August 2011. She later described the young robbers and her fear to Zimmerman more than 20 times, she told jurors.
"They escaped before the cops got there," Bertalan said.
Later, a young black man who lived in the gated community was arrested for the robbery, she said.
Before resting their case, defense attorneys called their 18th and last witness: Zimmerman's father, Robert Zimmerman, Sr.
The father became the ninth person to testify that the voice heard screaming on a 911 call was George Zimmerman. In his short testimony, Robert Zimmerman said he had listened to the call at least six times but first listened to it when state attorneys played it for him.
"It's my son," he said.
The state will present closing statements for two hours Thursday. Zimmerman's attorneys get three hours for their case Friday. The state will then get one hour to present rebuttal statements. The jury will likely get the case Friday, Judge Nelson said.
Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY