SANFORD -- The courthouse tension thickened Saturday night after jurors in the George Zimmerman trial asked about a manslaughter charge while deliberations stretched over 14 hours, two days and a dinner provided by the court.
As night fell Saturday, scores of demonstrators — illuminated by the lights of a sea of media tents and live trucks — milled about outside the Seminole criminal courthouse.
Earlier in the night, the jury sent out a note asking for a clarification on the manslaughter jury instruction. After a brief break and legal research by both sides, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to send a note back to jurors asking them to be more specific about the question.
“If you have a specific question, please submit it,” Seminole Circuit Judge Debra Nelson wrote on a piece of legal paper to be sent back to the jury room.
As of 9 p.m., the jury had not sent back a response. They worked through dinner, finishing about 8:30 p.m.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder with a firearm in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Miami Gardens teen who was shot during a violent scuffle in February 2012. The charge is punishable by up to life in prison.
But jurors can also consider manslaughter with a firearm, which carries a maximum penalty up to 30 years. The jury can also convict on manslaughter without a firearm, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Many legal analysts have long said prosecutors overreached with a second-degree murder charge, hoping for a “compromise” verdict that still carries a significant sentence.
“I don’t think it’s good for Mr. Zimmerman,” said Miami lawyer John Priovolos, who has been following the case, discussing the jurors’ question. “That means at the very least they’re contemplating the manslaughter charge.”
Jurors deliberated Saturday morning for three hours, took a lunch break and resumed again at 1 p.m. and continuing throughout the afternoon. The jury deliberated less than four hours Friday afternoon before asking to return to their hotel rooms.
Outside the Seminole courthouse, a few dozen protesters kept watch Saturday while jurors continued their work. Most were there in support of Trayvon, hoping for a murder conviction. Their chants included “Murder, not manslaughter!” and “[Zimmerman] Wasn’t goin’ to Target, was lookin’ for a target.” Zimmerman was on his way to Target when he spotted Trayvon.
Sanford residents Edna Fernandez and Roberto Isaac stood just outside of the barricaded protest area but said they, too, were hopeful for a guilty verdict.
“That boy was killed, and Zimmerman’s trying to claim self-defense with a few small bruises?” Fernandez said. “Look, it’s not a racial thing. We’re both Latino, but we’ve watched the whole trial, and the outcome should be obvious to anyone.”
If Zimmerman is convicted of second-degree murder with a firearm, he faces up life in prison. Jurors can also consider manslaughter with a firearm, which carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison.
The trial has captured worldwide attention, casting scrutiny on U.S. race relations and Florida’s much criticized self -defense law.
In Sanford and South Florida, law enforcement, community leaders and elected officials have been urging peace and calm in the wake of the verdict.