By Rene Stutzman, Orlando Sentinel
9:13 PM CDT, March 31, 2012
A 35-year-old Sumter County man whose hungry python strangled a 2-year-old child was guilty of manslaughter. So was the doctor who gave Michael Jackson a lethal dose of a sedative.
But is George Zimmerman, the Sanford Neighborhood Watch volunteer who got into a fist fight and wound up killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, guilty of the same crime?
Trayvon's father says Zimmerman should be charged with murder, but manslaughter is the crime that Sanford police investigated, according to case records.
What exactly is it?
"Manslaughter generally is a crime that's committed in the heat of passion, meaning there's no premeditation," said Isadore Hyde Jr., a Lake Mary criminal defense lawyer. "It's something that happens in the moment. It's quick, and you've got a dead body."
Richardo Roach is one example. He celebrated New Year's Eve by firing an assault rifle into the air at an Orange County gathering in 2004. A mile away, one of the bullets fell back to Earth, striking a 75-year-old man in the chest and killing him.
Roach was arrested, accused of manslaughter but wound up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and served one day in jail.
As spelled out in Florida Statute 782.07, manslaughter is a killing caused by an individual's "culpable negligence."
What is culpable negligence?
"You've got to do something really stupid," said William Orth, a Longwood lawyer and former Seminole County prosecutor, "…something that you and I as intelligent humans — adults — know, 'Don't do that. Somebody could get hurt.' "
It requires a suspect to be much more than negligent, lawyers say. It requires him to show a gross disregard for the safety of others.
In Trayvon's case, prosecutors would have to prove Zimmerman was wanton and reckless, according to the set of jury instructions that all Florida judges read aloud before sending jurors to begin deliberations in manslaughter cases.
If Zimmerman was the aggressor and provoked the fight, that might be manslaughter, said Orlando defense attorney Diana Tennis.
For example, if he had his gun drawn and was chasing Trayvon, cornered him then the 17-year-old turned and began to throw punches and Zimmerman shot and killed him, that might qualify, she said.
But that does not match Zimmerman's account to police. In his version of events, he stepped from his SUV and followed Trayvon but lost sight of the teenager and turned and was walking back to his vehicle.
Trayvon appeared from behind, Zimmerman told police, they exchanged words then Trayvon punched him, knocked him to the ground, got on top of him and began banging his head against the sidewalk.
Zimmerman pulled his 9 mm semiautomatic pistol from his waistband and fired one shot in self-defense, he told police.
If that's what happened, Tennis said, "I don't believe that's manslaughter."
One critical piece of evidence is how the two came to be face to face, lawyers said.
But how that happened is not clear. Police said they have someone who may have caught a glimpse of that — but not a full picture.
In her investigation, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey might turn up something more, but she imposed a news blackout last week, so no information is coming from her office.
One witness could be Trayvon's 16-year-old girlfriend. An attorney for Trayvon's family said the girl was on the phone with him, heard someone ask the teen, "What are you doing around here?" then heard what sounded like a shove, and the phone line went dead.
Prosecutors would have to prove, Tennis said, that Zimmerman set into motion an unbroken chain of events that he should have known had a reasonable chance of leading to someone's death.
If Zimmerman were to be convicted of manslaughter, he would face a possible 30-year prison sentence. Normally, manslaughter carries a 15-year sentence, but Florida law imposes a harsher sentence in the death of children, the elderly, the disabled and caregivers.
Henry Pierson Curtis contributed to this report. email@example.com or 407-650-6394.
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