Neighbourhood watch leader who shot dead teenager on Florida housing estate will instead go straight to jury trial

Lawyers acting for George Zimmerman, who shot dead the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin on a Florida housing estate, have abandoned their attempt to have his murder charge thrown out on the grounds of self-defence.

Neighbourhood watch leader Zimmerman, 29, had been expected to claim immunity from prosecution at a hearing in April under the state's stand-your-ground law, which allows for the use of deadly force when a person feels their life is in danger.

But in a surprise move, his lawyer, Mark O'Mara, told a judge that the defence would take its chances at Zimmerman's trial in June for second-degree murder. He said he still intended to pursue the argument that his client was acting in self-defence in February 2012 under a violent onslaught from 17-year-old Martin.

The unexpected decision changes the entire direction of a case that sparked racial tensions when Zimmerman was originally released without charge. The case also put America's gun laws under the spotlight.

His fate will now almost certainly rest with a jury instead of circuit court judge, Debra Nelson, who could have thrown out the case at next month's immunity hearing. It leaves the defendant at more risk of the minimum 25-year sentence that would follow a conviction.

"The real focus is going to be on getting ready for a jury trial," O'Mara said at a hearing on Tuesday in Sanford, close to the Retreat at Twin Lakes community where Martin had been staying with his father on the night of his death.

"As you know I've been counting. We're only at 96 days [from trial] right now. So that only gives us time to really get ready for one hearing. And that's going to be a jury trial where he gets acquitted. George wants to have a jury of his peers decide the case."

The defence has always contended it was Martin who was the aggressor as they became entangled in a confrontation on the night of 26 February 2012 as the teenager walked back to the house owned his father's friend carrying candy and a soft drink he had bought at a nearby shop.

Zimmerman told police in a 911 call that he was following a "suspicious" male but claimed Martin turned on him, pinning him to the ground and breaking his nose before he managed to draw his handgun and fire a single deadly shot.

The prosecutor, Bernie de la Rionda, will counter that Zimmerman, who had previously called in cases of unidentified males walking in the community, was an overzealous busybody who pursued and harassed an unarmed teenager before killing him with intent.

De La Rionda said he was "bewildered" by Tuesday's change of defence tactics. The hearing ended with O'Mara announcing he reserved the right to still seek a new stand-your-ground hearing despite telling Nelson she could clear her calendar for the two weeks beginning 29 April that had been set aside for the legal argument.

Tuesday's court hearing heard that testimony from a crucial state witness, a teenage girl known only as Witness 8 who claimed to have been on the phone with Martin when he was shot, would be called into question.

The girl previously testified that she was in hospital on the day of Martin's funeral but the state attorney's office admitted that no medical records existed to back her claim. Defence lawyers are expected to use the development to challenge the credibility of her story about the phone call.

Zimmerman's trial is scheduled to begin in Sanford on 10 June. His wife, Shelley, 25, faces a perjury charge in separate proceedings for allegedly lying to the court about the couple's finances at a bail hearing in her husband's case.

© 2013 Guardian News and Media