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Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY
SANFORD, Fla. -- The judge in the Trayvon Martin murder case agreed Thursday to instruct jurors to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter when they begin deliberations.
George Zimmerman had been charged only with second-degree murder. Judge Debra Nelson rejected a prosecution request that a third-degree murder count also be added.
Zimmerman's attorneys had objected to adding any lesser charges, and Judge Debra Nelson held a hearing on the issue Thursday morning. The jury also has the option of convicting Zimmerman, 29, of the second-degree murder charge that prosecutors sought when the trial began.
The third-degree murder charge request drew a heated argument. Third-degree murder can involve death that results from committing a felony, even if the accused did not mean to kill the victim.
Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei, arguing for the count, said Zimmerman committed "child abuse" -- a felony -- on Trayvon, 17.
Don West argued against their claim, saying child abuse had never been mentioned during the trial. He called the attempt to add the third-degree murder charge a "trick by the state."
The last-minute effort to add lesser charges has been seen by some legal experts as an indication that prosecutors were not confident about their chances for a second-degree murder conviction. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, has been portrayed by prosecutors as a wanna-be cop who shot Trayvon, who is black, after a confrontation in a gated residential community in February 2012.
"They aren't going to go all or nothing," said Jose Baez, a Florida criminal defense attorney, of state prosecutors. "They aren't blind to the fact that they haven't proven second-degree murder." Baez successfully defended Casey Anthony, a Florida mother accused of killing her daughter in a high-profile capital murder case.
Zimmerman says he acted in self-defense after the 17-year-old sucker-punched him and began beating him. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, says that race did not factor into his actions.
Second-degree murder in Florida carries a possible life sentence. If convicted of manslaughter, Zimmerman could get up to 30 years.
Elizabeth Parker, a Florida criminal defense attorney who has been monitoring the case, said the third-degree murder count could bring a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors also had considered but then decided against trying to add the charge of aggravated assault, which would carry no more than a five-year prison term.
The state was scheduled to present closing statements for two hours Thursday afternoon. Zimmerman's attorneys get three hours for their closing Friday. The state will then get one hour to present rebuttal statements.
The jury could begin deliberations Friday.