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.
Trayvon was in Sanford visiting his father after he was suspended from Dr. Michael Krop High in North Miami-Dade. His killing focused attention on Florida’s self-defense law, which critics say promoted vigilante justice. Prominent black civil rights leaders staged rallies for Zimmerman’s arrest.
Sanford police initially didn’t arrest Zimmerman, after he claimed self-defense. Gov. Rick Scott later appointed prosecutors from Jacksonville to investigate. Zimmerman was arrested 44 days later.
The trial began June 10 as lawyers selected an all-female, six-person jury; of the jurors, five are white, one is Hispanic.
Over 50 witnesses testified, including the mothers of both Trayvon and Zimmerman, each of whom said the voice crying for help on a neighbor’s 911 call belonged to her son.
Closing arguments in the case ended Friday. Defense lawyers have said Zimmerman had to fire his gun to save his life during a scuffle started by Trayvon, while prosecutors have depicted Zimmerman as an over-zealous neighborhood watchman who falsely assumed Trayvon was a criminal prowling the Retreat at Twin Lakes community.
“This case not about standing your ground. It’s about staying in your car, as he was taught to do,” prosecutor John Guy told jurors in a final closing argument Friday afternoon.
In an appeal to the all-female jury, Guy repeatedly referred to Trayvon as a “child.” Several jurors looked emotionally strained as he spoke.
The state honed in on Zimmerman’s phone call to police reporting Trayvon as a suspicious person, a false assumption that the teen was a criminal, Guy said. In the phone call, Zimmerman admits to getting out of his truck and following Trayvon. Yet he also claimed the teen was circling his vehicle menacingly.
Guy also stressed Zimmerman’s mutterings -- that “these assholes always get away” and “f**king punks” -- prove the “hate” needed to convict on a charge of second-degree murder.
“If there was ever a window into that man’s soul, it was that defendant’s words on that phone call,” Guy said.
The defense cast Zimmerman as a reasonable resident, concerned about safety in his neighborhood, who was attacked by a physically more adept young man.
Defense attorney Mark O’Mara also played a vivid computer animation that showed a Trayvon avatar hitting the figure representing Zimmerman, then straddling him on the grass beside a concrete walkway. The 911 tape that captured the cries of the struggle and the fatal gunshot played over the animation.
The defense attorney, during three hours of closing arguments, stressed that Zimmerman’s state of mind — fearful — was key. He called the photos of Zimmerman’s injuries to his face and head “icing on the cake.” It was Trayvon who committed the crime, O’Mara suggested.
The lawyer finished in dramatic fashion: by carrying a chunk of concrete into court and plopping it on the floor, telling jurors it was “disgusting” for prosecutors to suggest Trayvon was “unarmed.” The defense has said Trayvon bashed Zimmerman’s head into a sidewalk during the struggle.
“That’s a sidewalk,” O’Mara said. “That is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles, trying to get home.”