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Zimmerman jury’s size, manslaughter charge may affect deliberation length

George Zimmerman is accused of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin (left). (23569)
George Zimmerman is accused of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin (left).

SANFORD, Fla. — With closing arguments under way in the George Zimmerman trial, trial watchers and supporters on both sides of the case are anxiously waiting and wondering when they’ll hear the jury’s verdict.

“I ask you to come back with a verdict that speaks the truth. A verdict that is just,” said state prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda in his closing statement Thursday. “They can’t take any more photos, and that’s true because of the actions of one person.”

Zimmerman’s defense team is expected to deliver its closing argument Friday, and the jury could get the case that afternoon.

Zimmerman is accused of killing Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012. Martin, 17, was walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood when Zimmerman saw him and told police that he looked suspicious. An altercation ensued, and Zimmerman said he was forced to draw his gun and shoot the teen in self-defense.

The jury that will decide Zimmerman’s fate is made up of six people — all women — rather than 12. According to the Florida rules of criminal procedures, “12 persons shall constitute a jury to try all capital cases, and six persons shall constitute a jury to try all other criminal cases.”

Thanks in part to this smaller jury, legal experts don’t expect a long, drawn-out deliberation and say the jury could come back with a decision fairly quickly. Attorney Ryan Smith, host of “HLN After Dark,” falls into this camp.

“There are a number of side issues, but once (jurors) decide who the aggressor was, and whether or not they believe George’s story, a verdict isn’t far behind,” Smith said.

But if there’s one holdout — an undecided juror — deliberations could take a while, Smith said.

One point that might hold up the jury’s decision is determining whether the killing was carried out with hatred, ill will or spite — a prerequisite for a second-degree murder verdict. Proving how a person felt during a killing is difficult, so the prosecution has had to rely on the evidence to tell the story of what led to the shooting, according to Smith.

However, experts like Smith say that the lack of physical evidence in this case has left the jury with no clear, detailed explanation of what happened that night. If a juror sees any reasonable alternative to second-degree murder, she has to vote not guilty. But, once a juror rules out second-degree murder, she can still vote guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

The evidence isn’t the only issue that could affect deliberation time. Defense attorney Darren Kavinoky said personal opinion could push the jury to a decision, even if that decision is that they cannot reach a consensus.

“Views are so strong and unyielding in certain matters — especially where race is concerned — that if there’s alignment among the jurors, we’ll have a quick verdict, but if there’s conflict in that matter, it won’t be resolved by a further discussion of the evidence,” said Kavinoky, a frequent guest of “HLN After Dark.” “If the jury is stuck, they may know it fairly quickly.”

If they agree to disagree on second-degree murder, the jurors are left with two choices: a hung jury or the lesser charge of manslaughter.

“Manslaughter invites the possibility of a compromise — an elegant way out for the jury,” Kavinoky said. He adds, however, that the lesser charge wouldn’t necessarily be a win for the defense, which pushed against it as a possible choice for the jury.

“Since jurors don’t know the potential punishments of these particular crimes, they may think they’re doing the defendant a favor,” Kavinoky said. “But in fact, manslaughter means a sentence of nearly a decade in prison at minimum, and up to a maximum of 30 years.”

After 12 days of emotional testimony from 56 witnesses and more than 200 exhibits, Judge Debra Nelson ruled Thursday that Zimmerman will be charged with manslaughter in addition to the second-degree murder charge he is already facing.

Alexandra Thomas |