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Zimmerman Jurors Can Consider Manslaughter: Judge

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 11, 2013 10:03 AM

George Zimmerman's jurors can consider finding him guilty of manslaughter, a Florida judge ruled Thursday.

This move is seen by many as a half-measure by prosecutors to ensure that jurors return a guilty verdict in the high-profile case. Some defense attorneys feel the jury hasn't seen enough evidence to convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder, reports USA Today.

Allowing jurors to consider manslaughter calls for an understanding of what manslaughter is, as well as how it relates to Zimmerman's claim of self-defense.

Manslaughter Jury Instruction

Judge Debra Nelson ruled Thursday that she would "give the instruction on manslaughter" to the jury as a "Category One" offense, reports Reuters.

Category One offenses in Florida jury instructions are necessary lesser included charges. That means a jury can, without more evidence, find that Zimmerman was guilty of manslaughter and not second-degree murder.

Prior to Thursday's ruling, Zimmerman's defense attorney Mark O'Mara spoke out against the lesser charges. He also reiterated that Zimmerman's altercation with Martin "was not a crime," according to USA Today.

Murder v. Manslaughter

O'Mara is right to be upset for his client, as manslaughter has fewer required elements for a jury to find than second degree murder. But a conviction would still mean serious jail time.

In order to find Zimmerman guilty of second degree murder, a jury would have to find that he acted with a depraved indifference to human life, which asks the jury to make a sort of moral judgment.

Compare that with the requirements for manslaughter, which only ask that jurors find the defendant was either reckless or not justified by the circumstances in killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed.

In practice, this lesser included tactic tends to sway jurors who feel a conviction is warranted but can't find the justification for a murder conviction.

Self-Defense Still Present

The new jury instruction does not mean that jurors can forget about Zimmerman's claim of self-defense.

Unlike other legal arguments which would simply negate one element of a crime, self-defense is an affirmative defense which, if accepted, would completely excuse the crimes of both second degree murder and manslaughter.

Jurors will be instructed under Florida law that if they find that Zimmerman shot and killed Martin in self-defense, they cannot find that he is guilty of manslaughter.

You can read the official Florida jury instructions for manslaughter here:

Florida Criminal Jury Instruction - Manslaughter by FindLaw

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