George Zimmerman leaves the courtroom at the end of the day during his trial in Seminole circuit court July 5, 2013 in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. (Photo by Gary W. Green-Pool/Getty Images)
SANFORD, Fla. -- The judge in the Trayvon Martin murder case agreed Thursday to instruct jurors to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter when they begin deliberations.
George Zimmerman had been charged only with second-degree murder.
Zimmerman's attorneys had objected to adding any lesser charges, and Judge Debra Nelson held a hearing on the issue. The jury still has 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 were not 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 in February 2012.
"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 the 17-year-old sucker-punched him and began beating him. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, says that race did not factor into his actions.
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 the unarmed teen was a threat to his community.
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.
The state was scheduled to present closing statements for two hours Thursday at 1 p.m. ET. Zimmerman's attorneys get three hours for their closing Friday. The state will then get one hour to present rebuttal statements.
The jury will likely begin deliberations Friday.