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Zimmerman declines to testify as defense rests its case

George Zimmerman stands as the judge leaves the courtroom as jury selection continues in his second-degree murder trial in Sanford, Florida,
George Zimmerman stands as the judge leaves the courtroom as jury selection continues in his second-degree murder trial in Sanford, Florida,

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Lawyers for George Zimmerman rested their case on Wednesday without calling the former neighborhood watch volunteer to testify, setting up the final stages of his closely watched murder trial for the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

"After consulting with counsel, (I have decided) not to testify, your honor," Zimmerman said in response to questions from Seminole County Judge Debra Nelson.

It was a rare chance to hear Zimmerman speak, as the overweight 29-year-old sat emotionless throughout most of the proceedings, smartly dressed in suits and ties bought for him by a supporter.

The case has polarized the United States. Zimmerman's detractors see him as a racial profiler who considered Martin suspicious merely because the 17-year-old was black, and they blame the defendant for unnecessarily pulling out his Kel Tec 9mm pistol that was fully loaded with hollow-point bullets.

Backers of liberal gun laws rallied behind Zimmerman, helping to fund his defense upon seeing him as a persecuted hero who personified the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Jurors were set to begin deliberating on Friday afternoon, after state prosecutors delivered closing arguments on Thursday and the defense on Friday morning, followed by one last opportunity for rebuttal by the state.

The defense used less than four days of testimony to present its case, while prosecutors spent nine days putting on witnesses.

The defense won generally positive reviews from legal analysts, particularly for its use of well-known forensic pathologist Vincent Di Maio. He testified in support of Zimmerman's claim he acted in self-defense, saying Zimmerman suffered at least six blows to the head during his confrontation with Martin.

"With the evidence the way it is, I think that we have a very, very good chance with the jury right now," lead defense lawyer Mark O'Mara told reporters.

Zimmerman called police upon spotting Martin on the rainy night of February 26, 2012, in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, where Martin was a visitor and Zimmerman was the chief neighborhood watch volunteer.

Their fracas started and ended before officers arrived, as Zimmerman shot Martin once through the heart.

Zimmerman, who emerged bleeding from the nose and the back of his head, remained free for more than six weeks after killing Martin because Sanford police initially declined to arrest him, accepting his claim he acted in self-defense.

Nine of the 19 defense witnesses said they recognized Zimmerman's voice as that screaming for help on the background of a 911 emergency call, among them Zimmerman's mother and father. Zimmerman told police immediately after the shooting he had called for help but no one responded.

Prosecutors had previously called Martin's mother and brother, who testified they believed it was Martin who was heard calling for help.

The screams end upon the sound of a gunshot, and the case might hinge on who the six-woman jury believes was calling for help.

The defense opted against introducing evidence that Martin had a trace amount of marijuana in his system at the time of his death, in part, O'Mara said, out of concern it would alienate the jury and also out of respect for Martin's parents, who attended the entire trial.

The Sanford Police Department has put safety measures in place ahead of the verdict, although Chief Cecil Smith said he was not expecting any violence or even the kind of protests that broke out in Sanford last year and spread across the country.

"People are not feeling or hearing anything out there in the community, there's no chatter out there about anything taking place and in some cases there's more of a spin-up on the media side with regards to there being some issues of concern," Smith told Reuters.

Special prosecutor Angela Corey brought the charge of second-degree murder after the public outcry in Sanford, major U.S. cities and other small towns.

Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, faces up to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder. Prosecutors requested the jury also consider the lesser offense of manslaughter, with a maximum penalty of 30 years, and may also ask for an even lesser charge of aggravated assault.

The judge on Thursday will determine which lesser offenses to offer the jury.

Teresa Sopp, a veteran criminal defense lawyer based in Jacksonville, Florida, said prosecutors overreached with a second-degree murder charge, blaming Corey.

"She always jumps at a case to prosecute ... . She overprosecutes everything," Sopp said.

Corey, seated in the front row of the gallery throughout the trial, has declined to comment until after the verdict.

(Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Kevin Gray; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Xavier Briand)

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