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Zimmerman Trial Verdict: Murder or Manslaughter?

As both sides wrap up their closing arguments in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot 17-year old Trayvon Martin in a residential community in Florida last year, the prospect of a much-anticipated verdict is looming ever closer in the eyes of the nation.

The jury is set to begin deliberations as early as Friday afternoon. After the defense finishes its closing argument, the prosecution will be given the opportunity for a rebuttal statement. Judge Debra Nelson will then give instructions to the six jury members about the possible verdicts available to them.

The state of Florida originally charged Zimmerman of second-degree murder. However, on Wednesday and Thursday, prosecutors asked Judge Nelson to give the jury the option of convicting Zimmerman of several lesser charges, including manslaughter and third-degree felony murder based on a charge of child abuse.

The defense called the prosecution's proposal "outrageous" and accused the prosecution of springing the charge at the last minute as "a trick."

"Just when I thought this case couldn't get any more bizarre, the state is seeking third degree murder charges based on child abuse?" Defense attorney Don West said. He later added, "It's just hard for me to imagine that the court could take this seriously."

Judge Nelson decided to exclude the child abuse option from her instructions to the jury, but manslaughter will remain a possible ruling.

George Zimmerman appeared in court with his defense attorney, Mark O'Mara. Image courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel.

In order to find Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder, the members of the jury would have to find that Zimmerman's actions demonstrated "a depraved mind without regard for human life." Under Florida felony law, murder in the second degree carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

In order to find Zimmerman guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the jury would have to believe that Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin was "neither excusable, nor justified." Under Florida's Criminal Punishment Code, manslaughter is a second-degree felony. However, manslaughter with a firearm is a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. It carries a minimum sentence of 9 and a quarter years.

There is, of course, the possibility of a "not guilty" verdict. The jury could decide that George Zimmerman acted in accordance with Florida's self-defense laws when he shot Trayvon Martin. It would have to believe that Zimmerman's actions were "necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm."

In addition, the jury would have to believe that the prosecution failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder. It would also have to decide not to find him guilty of any lesser crimes.

In that case, Zimmerman would walk free. However, given the recent threats of violence and even chatter of "lynching" on the internet (“If Zimmerman don’t go to jail ill kill him for $20,” said one Twitter user) the consequences of that scenario could be just as severe for Zimmerman as any prison sentence.

Gabe Grand is an editorialist for PolicyMic who covers the George Zimmerman trial. For more live updates and opinions on the proceedings, follow him on Twitter.

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