When an unarmed Florida teen was gunned down by a volunteer neighborhood watchguard without an arrest, millions of social activists took to the streets demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Nearly a month after the murder, George Zimmerman was arrested and charged with the murder of the boy. As both sides prepare for trial and new evidence comes out every day, will the deciding factor in the case ultimately be Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law? Trial is currently set for June 10, 2013.
George Zimmerman has been charged with homicide in the second degree, which in Florida carries a possible penalty of 25 years to life in prison. Second degree murder is sometimes called “heat of passion” murder, or “depraved heart” murder. It differs from first degree murder in that it is not premeditated, that is, it was not committed “in cold blood.” A classic example of second degree murder is the husband who finds his wife having an affair and, in the heat of passion, kills the lover.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
So said President Obama in response to the tragic death of an unarmed African American teenager at the hand of a neighborhood watch patrolman. Trayvon Martin’s death has ignited discussion with a new perspective on racial profiling and gun laws after the man who killed him was not arrested. Communities across the country have responded in solidarity with a “Million Hoodie March,” a nod to the hoodie Trayvon was wearing when he was shot.
The Murder of Trayvon Martin
17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was walking through the Sanford, Florida gated community where he was visiting a friend of his father’s on the night of February 26, 2012. He was returning home from a trip to the convenience store, where he had picked up an iced tea and Skittles candy. He was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone as he weaved through the neighborhood.
George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic man, was the neighborhood’s self-appointed volunteer watch patrolman. He was driving around the community that night when he saw Trayvon. He thought Trayvon’s slow pace and the hoodie sweatshirt pulled over his head was “suspicious,” so he followed the boy in his car.
Trayvon told his girlfriend that someone was following him and making him nervous. She told him to run home; he said he would walk faster. Eventually he began running from Zimmerman who would not leave him alone.
Zimmerman was also on his cell phone with the 911 dispatcher. He reported that a suspicious, young black man wearing a dark-colored hoodie and holding something in his hands was prowling the neighborhood. The 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman that following the teenager around was unnecessary and that they would send the police department to check it out.
But Zimmerman kept following Trayvon until he cornered the boy. According to statements from both Zimmerman and Trayvon’s girlfriend, Trayvon asked Zimmerman what he wanted, and Zimmerman asked what he was doing there. At that point the girlfriend lost the call, and the only witness was Zimmerman, who claims that Trayvon attacked him, and he shot and killed Trayvon in self-defense.
Trayvon was unarmed, only having a bottle of iced tea and a bag of skittles in his hands.
Witnesses in the neighborhood heard shouts and screams before the gunshot, but it is unclear if the screams of pain came from Zimmerman or Trayvon. Sanford Police believed that Zimmerman was under attack; neighbors thought the screams sounded like they were coming from a young boy. In a 911 call, one neighbor told the authorities that a man in a white t-shirt was on top of the other man.
The police in Sanford police did not arrest George Zimmerman that night, causing nationwide protests. The Sanford City Council gave the Sanford Chief of Police, Bill Lee, a vote of no confidence. Lee has since been fired.
The Public Responds
Due to the public outcry, the matter was reviewed by a federal grand jury, and ultimately Zimmerman was arrested.
Trayvon Martin Shooting Rally in FLorida photo / APMeanwhile, community activists, lawyers and journalists did much of the investigation the police did not do — finding the neighborhood witnesses, Trayvon’s girlfriend and Zimmerman’s arrest record (in 2005 he was arrested for resisting arrest with violence and battery on law enforcement, but those charges were dropped). They also uncovered records showing that Zimmerman was something of a crime watch fanatic who called the police 46 times in 18 months. Of those calls, 4 were to report young black men walking around the tranquil gated community. Other members of the community had made official complaints about Zimmerman’s zealousness as a volunteer watchman. Since the police did not arrest Zimmerman, forensic screenings, including whether he was intoxicated at the time of the shooting, were not done.
The “Stand Your Ground” Law
Trayvon’s death has also exposed the flaws of Florida’s “stand your ground” law (see legal our ‘legal commentary’ section), and acts as a window into the racial politics in an ethnically diverse, middle class community. As Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon’s family, said to the media: “Do we really believe that if Trayvon Martin would have pulled the trigger, he would not be arrested?”
Zimmerman’s Bond Perjury
45 days after the killing, Zimmerman was arrested and released on a $150,000 bond. He told his lawyers and the judge that he was penniless, and the bond was set relatively low according to his claim. In fact, his supporters set up a fund, and donations were flooding in. While Zimmerman told the judge he was broke, he actually had $200,000 in donations. He also held on to a passport in defiance of the authorities.
Accordingly, the prosecutor requested that his bond be revoked. Judge Kenneth Lester agreed and ordered Zimmerman to surrender into custody while he awaits trial.
Shellie-Zimmerman’s-mugshot-from-the-Seminole-County-SheriffZimmerman’s wife, Shellie Zimmerman, was also arrested in connection with the bail fraud, after a jailhouse phone recording was released in which the couple spoke about money they had received in donations. The small increments of money they spoke about are said to be code for much larger sums of money, $155,000 to be exact. Prosecutors allege that she was making small deposits of the donation money sent to the Zimmermans in an effort to conceal how much the couple actually had.
Since this incident that landed both Zimmermans in jail, his wife has since been released on $1,000 bond. The remainder of the money has been deposited into an independent trust and cannot be accessed or applied to anything without the permission of the trust administrator. After a recent bond hearing that resembled a trial in which witnesses were called to the stand, the judge decided to set Zimmerman’s release at a $1 million bond. Zimmerman posted bond on July 6 and was released from custody.
More Evidence Released to the Public
After Zimmerman’s arrest, the public outrage subsided. New information about the shooting was released. Photographs taken of Zimmerman when he was arrested showed that his scalp was bloodied, and his nose was broken. A witness told the police that he saw a black man on top of another man, punching him “mixed martial arts style.”
The special prosecutor released a video to the public in which Zimmerman, at the location of the shooting, walks detectives through his take on the events of that night. In the video Zimmerman, though uncertain of minute details, tells a story of self defense in which he feared for his life while being beaten on the head by Martin. He also describes his injuries to the detectives.
Reports show that officers were not convinced of the severity of Zimmerman’s injuries. While all agreed that he had cuts on the back of his head, there was dispute as to whether he had fractured his nose.
Detective Chris Sereno, who interrogated Zimmerman the day after the shooting, said he was not fully convinced of Zimmerman’s claims. Sereno, who has since been taken off the case and reassigned to uniformed patrol duty, claims that Zimmerman came to a “faulty conclusion” about Martin. He also states that he believes Zimmerman’s injuries are only “marginally consistent” with a life threatening attack and that he does not believe Martin used deadly force. Sereno was also the first officer to suggest a manslaughter charge. Police originally stated there was no reason for an arrest.
The Martin family’s lawyer Benjamin Crump claims Sereno was taken off of the case and demoted for telling the truth.
Zimmerman had a long and contentious relationship with the Sanford Police Department. He often exchanged emails with Police Chief Bill Lee about local crime and accused the department of not doing their jobs well. When officers arrived on the scene of Martin’s shooting, they already knew Zimmerman well.
Medical examiners found THC, the active chemical in marijuana, in Trayvon’s blood. Trayvon had been suspended from school only a few days earlier when school administrators found traces of marijuana residue in a baggie on his person.
Forensic evidence has shown that Trayvon was shot at extremely close range.
The Duval County State Attorney released the results of DNA testing of the clothing, weapons and persons of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon’s DNA was conclusively not on the Kel Tec 9 mm firearm that Zimmerman used to kill the 17-year-old. However, the tests show DNA for at least three people on the gun’s holster, including Zimmerman’s. The others could not be determined, and Trayvon’s could not be ruled out.
Zimmerman’s DNA was not found under Trayvon’s fingernails, but his DNA was found on the bottom of the Nike sweatshirt Trayvon wore under his hoodie. Trayvon’s blood was also found on Zimmerman’s jacket.
Interviews with witnesses to the shooting have told various stories. One woman said she saw a chase, then later admitted she had seen only one person running and could not identify him because she had just taken her contacts out. The witness who said he saw mixed martial arts punching now says he is not sure whether the man was throwing punches or just pinning the other man down.
That witness was certain, however, that the man on top was Trayvon. Meanwhile, another witness was certain that the man on top was Zimmerman. Yet another witness told police that the “bigger” man was on top — whether she meant Martin, who is taller, or Zimmerman, who is broader, is unknown.
However, evidence shows that Zimmerman’s back was wet and covered in grass, which tends to support his version of the facts — that Martin was on top in the struggle.
Yet another witness told law enforcement that she was the first person on the scene, before even the police arrived. She said that Zimmerman asked her to get his wife, explaining that he had just shot someone. His voice was flat and unemotional, “like it was no big deal,” she said.
George Zimmerman – Zimmerman has been in jail since income and donor money disputes with the court came to a head. His father released a letter on his behalf pointing out that Zimerman is a Spanish-speaking Hispanic man with many black friends, and he would not discriminate based on race. Zimmerman was pursuing a criminal justice degree and had aspirations of being in law enforcement. Zimmerman has been characterized by FBI investigators as a “soft” man with “a little hero complex,” but not a racist.
Trayvon Martin – A typical American teenager, Trayvon Martin was a tall, skinny kid whose friends called him “Slimm.” He was a good student who loved his math classes and aspired to attend college to become an engineer — he wanted to work on airplanes. His teachers remember a sweet, respectful kid; his family remembers a boy who loved football, sports, video games, R&B, reggae, rap and gospel music and who was looking forward to taking his girlfriend to the junior prom.
Shellie Zimmerman – George Zimmerman’s wife, who is also charged in connection with this case. Although Shellie was not involved in the altercation that led to Trayvon’s death, prosecutors are alleging that she lied to the court about how much money she and her husband had during his bail proceedings. She is now charged with perjury.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton – The parents of Trayvon Martin who seek justice in their son’s killing. Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, recently released a video on Father’s Day pleading justice for his son and for all other families who were not able spend Father’s day with their child due to senseless killings justified under controversial “stand your ground” laws. Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, asserts that the screaming heard on the 911 tapes is her son in danger.
Bill Lee – Chief Lee was new to the job when Trayvon was killed. He has only been chief for ten months after a 27-year career at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department. He has since been terminated from his position after intense public outcry over his handling of Trayvon’s shooting.
Mark O’Mara – George Zimmerman’s attorney is a veteran criminal defense attorney in Florida and is no stranger to the media, having provided TV commentary on trials for years. He is well-respected in the Florida legal community as a thoughtful lawyer who works hard for his clients, follows the letter of the law and achieves good results. He’s also the current president of the Seminole County Bar Association.
Judge Debra S. Nelson – The third judge to preside over the George Zimmerman case. Judge Nelson replaces Judge Kenneth Lester after a three-judge panel of the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Florida voted 2-1 to grant defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s motion ordering Judge Lester to disqualify himself, asserting that Judge Lester had demonstrated a bias against Zimmerman, and his client would not be able to receive a fair trial. Judge Nelson was appointed Circuit Judge 18th Judicial Circuit of Florida by Governor Jeb Bush in May 1999.
Bernie de la Rionda – Known for being a dynamic and powerful communicator, assistant state attorney De la Rionda has been the lead counsel in several death penalty cases.
John Guy – Guy is a homicide prosecutor and assistant state attorney. Guy gave the opening statements insisting Trayvon Martin was profiled and hunted down by Zimmerman.
Is George Zimmerman A Molester?
911 Audio – Shellie Zimmerman Calls Police During Altercation With George Zimmerman
The Latest On Zimmerman – Jon Leiberman Reports
Commentary: Zimmerman Asked To Ditch The Ankle Bracelet
Commentary: Photo Shows Bloody, Battered Zimmerman
Do Social Media Posts Equal New, Powerful Hearsay Evidence?
Are Trayvon’s School Records Relevant?
Trayvon Never Touched The Gun, Thus No DNA?
July 13, 2013: NOT GUILTY. Somehow this is not a huge surprise to those of us who watched this trial closely. The prosecutors for the State of Florida had a lot of difficulty proving their case. Their witnesses kept going south on them and lacked credibility. They seemed to have trouble meeting their burden of proof, again and again without the crucial eyewitness to who was the initial aggressor, there was no way they could prove that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense.
Zimmerman’s team provided an intelligent defense involving some highly technical legal issues, but they also did a nice job explaining this crucial tenet of the American criminal justice system: In a case of he-said, he-said, the defendant gets the benefit of the doubt. That’s how innocent until proven guilty works.
There’s always a moment of pride for lawyers when the Constitution works the way it’s meant to work, but this verdict does not leave us with a sense of celebration. The State did not meet its burden against Zimmerman, but there is still a young man dead who may have very well been attacked based on the color of his skin.
However, this is really a testament to the power of a sequestered jury. Because the women of the jury were kept away from the media and the larger cultural discussions of this case, their decision was made almost in a vacuum. They were influenced by the arguments, evidence and testimony given in open court and nothing else. They did not begin their mornings with editorial columns, talking heads and legal bloggers and go to bed with cable news coverage. The jurors considered exactly what they were legally allowed to consider, no more and no less.
They found the evidence against George Zimmerman lacking. They did their job, and that is justice.
5 Key Moments From 2nd Week Of Zimmerman Trial
July 6, 2013: Prosecutors rested their case Friday at the end of the second week of testimony in George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial. Defense attorneys now have their chance this week to call witnesses and introduce testimony. They called their first two witnesses late Friday.
Zimmerman is pleading not guilty to second-degree murder. He has said he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012 in self-defense during a struggle at the townhome complex where Zimmerman lived and Martin was visiting. The case has raised issues of profiling, gun control and equal justice under the law.
Here are five key moments from the past week.
STATE RESTS, ACQUITTAL DENIED
After presenting more than three dozen witnesses over two weeks, prosecutors rested their case Friday. They called as witnesses police investigators, Martin’s mother and brother, medical examiners, neighbors who heard the struggle, and a friend of Martin’s who was the last person to talk to him by telephone before his confrontation with Zimmerman. As is typical after the prosecution rests, the defense asked Judge Debra Nelson to acquit Zimmerman, claiming prosecutors’ didn’t prove their case. The judge denied the request.
BATTLE OF THE MOMS
Zimmerman’s mother and Martin’s mother each testified Friday that it was her son who can be heard screaming for help on a 911 call. Both women, testifying at separate times, were expressionless as the 911 call was played in the courtroom. Identifying the voice could be critical in helping the jury determine who the aggressor was during the scuffle.
HOW LONG DID MARTIN LIVE?
Associate Medical Examiner Shiping Bao told jurors Friday that Martin was alive from one to 10 minutes after he was shot in the heart by Zimmerman. Later, he conceded that his testimony was different from a deposition he gave last year in which he said the teen lived one to three minutes after the gunshot. During a prickly cross-examination, Bao said it was possible Martin may have been able to move after being shot. That is important because Martin’s arms are positioned differently in a photo than the way Zimmerman described them being after he fired the shot.
DETECTIVE’S WORDS TOSSED
Called as a prosecution witness, Sanford Police investigator Chris Serino testified he found Zimmerman credible in his description of his fight with Martin. But the judge ordered jurors to ignore his opinion, granting a prosecution request to toss the statement because it is improper for one witness to testify about the credibility of another witness.
ICE CREAM PHOTO
An Instagram photo posted by defense attorney Don West’s daughter became the subject of a prosecution motion for an inquiry. Prosecutors say the photo showing West eating ice cream with his daughters was posted after his tense cross-examination with prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel last week. The caption read, “We beat stupidity celebration cones.” West says the ice cream photo was taken a day before Jeantel testified and has nothing to do with her testimony. He called the prosecution’s motion “irresponsible.”
June 27, 2013: It’s only a few days in and, we’ve got to say, things are looking good for George Zimmerman. Let’s talk about why:
1. The jury
Usually, a six-person jury is a great thing for the prosecution because it means they only have to convince six people instead of 12. The same is true here, but these six might be inclined to see it Zimmerman’s way.
Our reasoning is this: Without one man of color to explain what it’s like to walk down the street in Trayvon Martin’s shoes, or what it’s like to have strangers instantly assume your intentions are threatening or violent, that perspective might become excluded from the jurors’ understanding of this case.
Tracy Martin, Sybrina Fulton Sanford Fla. June 25, 2013 Photo / AP – Orlando Sentinel, Gary W Green, PoolThere are major elements of this case that require the context of racial profiling in the United States to be properly understood, primarily Zimmerman’s initial, unprovoked pursuit of Martin. Without a juror who has had similar experiences to offer his perspective, the jury’s decision may lack that frame of reference. That could tilt the scales in Zimmerman’s favor.
2. The witnesses.
As of the end of the first week, witness credibility has become the prosecution’s greatest hurdle.
Neighbor Jonathan Good testified on Friday. His testimony was eloquent, coherent and had the indicia of credibility; essentially, he made sense and was a good witness. He testified that he saw Martin straddled on top of Zimmerman, punching him in the face.
Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, testified earlier this week. She was, well, less eloquent. In fact, her testimony was downright confusing, and even belligerent and patently false at times. She was not a strong witness for either the prosecution or the defense, and she testified that Martin was on the phone with her while he was walking back, that Zimmerman was stalking Martin and that Zimmerman began the confrontation.
June 13, 2013: With the selection of any jury comes all kinds of questions about whether the chosen jurors will be up to the task demanded of them, and in a case as high-profile as this one, those questions are compounded.
Judge Debra Nelson headed off some of those questions today by ordering the Zimmerman jurors sequestered for the duration of the trial. It’s a dramatic move reserved for only the most dramatic of trials and often used when there’s a credible threat of juror tampering.
What does sequestration mean for the jurors who will be hearing the Zimmerman trial? The best people to ask would be the 17 men and women who were sequestered during the high-profile Casey Anthony trial. (The Casey Anthony trial, for better or for worse, seems to have become a sort of benchmark for Floridian judges, lawyers and media as to how a high-profile case is “supposed to” happen, and Judge Nelson has wasted no time in deploying similar strategies in this case.)
During the Casey Anthony trial, the jurors were sequestered for months. While the news media raged about Anthony’s trial nonstop, they lived a quiet, media-free life in a hotel nearby the courthouse. They were monitored by sheriff’s deputies throughout the day and particularly during their interactions with family visitors, their telephone calls, their reading and their internet use.
They ate two meals a day at the hotel, and courthouse staff provided them with groceries, prescriptions and other necessities,so there was no need for them to travel anywhere other than the courthouse. Shopping was strictly out of the question, as jurors would see newspapers and magazines with news of the trial. Their transportation was also always in the custody of the sheriff’s department deputies.
They were allowed to keep their cell phones, but the use of those phones was also closely monitored by the sheriff’s deputies, and when the phones were not in use, the deputies held on to them.
The jury’s hotel televisions were programmed to only permit channels that were not covering the trial, including ESPN, shopping channels and the Cartoon Network. As the trial gained more publicity, the case began showing up on even some of these networks. By the end of the trial, the jurors were only allowed to watch three channels and pre-approved DVDs.
One challenge for deputies during the Anthony case was getting a juror to a dentist appointment without seeing magazines or discussing the case with the staff of the dentist’s office. Every step had to be pre-planned and carefully managed to ensure that the juror would not be exposed to any trial news, rumors or gossip.
In the end, did the sequestration work? Did Anthony get a fair trial? Anthony’s jury acquitted her, amidst rancorous public outcry. But the difference is that those men and women of the jury saw a totally different case than the rest of the world did.
They only saw, and only heard, the evidence that was legally admissible and that came out during the trial. They did not see the trial that took place in the media, where there are no rules against hearsay or other evidentiary safeguards to ensure due process.
Casey Anthony was guilty in the mind of the public based on the trial in the media. But the trial that took place in the courthouse did not give these jurors sufficient evidence to convict Anthony, and their verdict was due in major part to their sequestration.
George Zimmerman may benefit from the sequestration, as Anthony did, but one thing is certain: The trial you and I watch on Wild About Trial and in the media as a whole will be very, very different from the trial that takes place in the courtroom. And that’s the only one that will matter to these sequestered jurors.
May 1, 2013, 2012: The much-anticipated “stand your ground” hearing has come and gone, not with a bang but with a whimper.
We’re definitely mourning in the Wild About Trial offices. We were so excited to watch the hearing, which was certain to be a “mini-trial” where we could get a glimpse at some of the factual issues that would come to light in the real trial. Plus, we were looking forward to seeing defense attorney Mark O’Mara get his cross-examination on — we’ve heard he’s the best there is.
Basically, we needed a break from the nonstop Jodi Arias loop we’ve been living in.
Setting our disappointment aside, however, there is a great explanation for why O’Mara and Zimmerman waived this hearing. It’s as simple as playing poker: They didn’t want to give away their hand.
As attorneys, sometimes we play the long game, strategy-wise. It’s so tempting to go in for the big win the second we see an opportunity. But ultimately, our clients are usually better served by thoughtful, conservative litigation, and that includes not laying out your best arguments and your best witnesses months before an actual trial.
If they had proceeded with the “Stand your ground” hearing, they would have packaged and gift-wrapped their case like a Christmas present for the prosecution. They know that in order to win, they need to be a little more coy with their best evidence.
Also, had they proceeded, they probably would not have prevailed. Even if they made a very strong showing, no judge wants to be the judge who took away Trayvon Martin’s day in court. Any judge in this country would have listened to the evidence and said, “very good, Mr. O’Mara, but this is up to a jury to decide.” That’s called American justice, folks. We let the jury decide.
December 12, 2012: Once again, George Zimmerman has tried to have the conditions of his bail modified, and once again, a Florida judge has refused.
Yesterday, Judge Debra Nelson refused to allow Zimmerman to remove his GPS monitoring device and refused to relax restrictions on Zimmerman’s travel.
Currently, Zimmerman is allowed to travel to his attorneys’ offices, which is normal, but is otherwise confined to his home county. He wears a GPS monitoring device at all times to ensure that he remains compliant.
It is fairly unusual for a defendant facing homicide charges to be able to make bail at all, but those who are able to do so generally have far stricter conditions. House arrest is a guarantee for the majority of homicide defendants awaiting trial. A lucky few are permitted access to religious services or family member’s homes. To have the run of the county, as Zimmerman does, is a privilege.
However, Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, argued that Zimmerman needs to be able to leave the county periodically for his own safety. O’Mara told the court that Zimmerman endures frequent threats against his safety from the local community.
Judge Nelson did not agree, and we at WAT can’t really blame her. If Zimmerman truly feels threatened, he is welcome to stay at home. He can also call for law enforcement protection against pernicious threats. There are a variety of ways to keep Mr. Zimmerman safe, and letting him leave the county from time to time is not the best way to do that — particularly when, as the judge herself observed, he has used his previous travel allowances to do TV interviews.
September 21, 2012: The big news this week is that DNA results are back, and there’s no trace of Trayvon Martin on George Zimmerman’s handgun. With Zimmerman’s Stand Your Ground hearing scheduled for next week, this piece of the puzzle says a lot about Zimmerman’s credibility but very little about what actually happened.
Recall that when police were investigating Martin’s killing, Zimmerman told them that he and Martin were engaged in a scuffle, and Martin was after his gun. Those statements were part of the reason that Zimmerman was not originally arrested, because police thought that Zimmerman feared for his life and was acting to protect himself.
Now that we know that Martin did not actually come into contact with the handgun, well, that doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t a scuffle, but it does mean that Trayvon Martin never pointed George Zimmerman’s gun at him — and that Zimmerman never feared his life would end with a gunshot wound. Not exactly the end-all in evidence, but one more piece in a puzzle that tends to make Zimmerman look like he’s been fudging the truth to protect himself.
September 4, 2012: Last week a three-judge panel of the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Florida voted 2-1 to grant defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s motion ordering Judge Kenneth Lester to disqualify himself from presiding over the George Zimmerman trial for second degree homicide for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
It is uncommon for a judge to be disqualified for bias, but Judge Lester made several uncommonly pointed remarks to the defendant. Drawing from the defense’s motion, Judge Lester stated that ”[u]nder any definition, the Defendant has flouted the system” and that “The Defendant has tried to manipulate the system when he has been presented the opportunity to do so.” Judge Lester also commented that he believed there was probable cause to believe Zimmerman committed perjury.
The Appellate court was not asked to determine the accuracy of any of Judge Lester’s assertions but instead limited its review to whether it meets a much lower “legally sufficient” standard. Quite simply, to use the language of the court, the motion must be granted if it “alleges facts that would create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”
Because of judicial sensitivity to any implications of bias (these are JUDGES after all), it is rare to read about a judge flatly calling a defendant a liar. However, the comments made by Judge Lester were in response to conduct he observed in his own courtroom during the bail hearing and not in reference to the facts of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Our justice system can’t allow defendants to scream “bias” from a mountaintop every time they receive an adverse ruling and claim the judge should be removed because he or she doesn’t believe them!
Are Judge Lester’s comments really sufficient to create a well-founded fear that Zimmerman would not receive a fair and reasonable trial? I’m not sure, but at least 2 appellate judges in Florida believe they are.
The Appellate court admitted their decision was “a close call,” with one dissenting judge writing that Judge Lester’s conduct did not cross the line to require a disqualification order.
It appears here, with such a close issue, that the scales may have been tipped by the facts of the case. This is a well-publicized and highly scrutinized judicial proceeding where the defendant’s credibility is at the crux of the case. Therefore, the Appellate court may be erring on the side of caution here in maintaining as much distance as possible from any alleged (or appealable) improprieties.
July 13, 2012: Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, filed a motion to disqualify circuit court judge Ken Lester from presiding over Zimmerman’s trial and his “stand your ground” hearing today. The motion was based on statements Lester made in open court which were “disparaging,” according to O’Mara.
During the bond hearing, Lester told Zimmerman, in no uncertain terms, that Zimmerman did not have an ounce of credibility in his courtroom. It is unusual for a jurist to display that kind of open bias against a criminal defendant, particularly in a high-profile case where judicial behavior is scrutinized.
This makes O’Mara’s job easier, however. He knows he needs to get Zimmerman out of Lester’s courtroom, and Lester’s own conduct has made that possible.
O’Mara can win his motion if he shows that Zimmerman has a reasonable fear that he cannot get a fair trial in Lester’s courtroom. Since Lester stated outright that he believed Zimmerman lied, it seems reasonable that Zimmerman would not believe Lester would give him a fair shake.
July 5, 2012: As the defense fought to get Zimmerman’s bond reinstated, it appeared that they took the bond hearing as an opportunity to defend both Zimmerman’s integrity and the strength of his self-defense argument.
As attorneys called witnesses to the stand brought in evidence, the bond hearing resembled a full-blown trial. Mark O’Mara not only called Zimmerman’s father to the stand but also called the paramedic that treated him for injuries the night of the incident. The paramedic claimed that blood covered 45% of Zimmerman’s face.
While O’Mara admits his client was wrong to mislead the court about his finances, he also reminded the judge that Zimmerman has been undeniably compliant with all aspects of the investigation.
In Florida the judge is permitted to look to the strength of the prosecution’s case as one prong in the analysis of setting reasonable bail. If the court had agreed with O’Mara and found Zimmerman’s self-defense argument persuasive, it could have concluded that the lower $150,000 bond was sufficient to guarantee Zimmerman’s appearance in court and at trial.
Ultimately, however, O’Mara’s mini-trial did little to convince the judge that Zimmerman was eligible for the low bond. Zimmerman’s bond was set at $1 million, a clear sign from the court that it was fed up with Zimmerman’s courtroom manipulations.
Alison Triessl on the Bond Ruling:
Seven days after Judge Kenneth R. Lester Jr. heard arguments for and against George Zimmerman’s renewed request for bond, Judge Lester ruled that George Zimmerman’s bail would be set at $1,000,000, a $850,000 increase from the previous bail amount of $150,000. In authoring an eight page ruling, which could only be described as both blistering and parental scolding from the bench, Judge Lester found that George Zimmerman has shown a blatant disregard for the judicial system and, in the court’s words, “. . .circumstances indicate that the Defendant was preparing to flee to avoid prosecution, but such plans were thwarted.”
The factual and legal implications of the court’s ruling are much bigger than the issue at hand. By raising George Zimmerman’s bond to a million dollars, Judge Lester found that George Zimmerman tried to manipulate the system and that the defense had presented false testimony. In a case where the defendant’s credibility and truthfulness are the core issues for the court to consider as this case advances to trial, the judge’s order does not bode well for the defense.
There is no dispute in this case over whether George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The only issue in this case will be whether or not George Zimmerman acted in self-defense. It is purely a question of credibility. And guess who decides that question in the up and coming “stand your ground” law hearing? That’s right, Judge Kenneth R. Lester, the same judge who found that George Zimmerman has flouted and manipulated the system, will decide if George Zimmerman is telling the truth that he was in fear for his life the night he shot Trayvon Martin.
Although it is too early to call, this legal commentator believes that defense counsel O’Mara should be seriously considering some type of plea for his client before this case makes its way to the jury. With life in prison as a very likely consequence and a judge’s eight page typewritten ruling questioning George Zimmerman’s truthfulness, integrity and candor, a plea deal may very well be the best option for Zimmerman.
From a prosecutor’s point of view, although this hearing went their way, in the long run, a plea deal may also make a lot of sense. The many weaknesses in their case are apparent. To begin, Florida has one of the most liberal “stand your ground” laws in the country, there are no eye witnesses to the actual shooting, George Zimmerman clearly suffered some injuries (the paramedic testified that over 45% of his face was covered with blood), neighbors purportedly heard Zimmerman screaming for help and lastly, let’s not forget that the police who initially responded and investigated this case found that George Zimmerman was acting in self defense and opted not to charge him. All of these factors, which are a challenge to the prosecution, will certainly make their way into the defense arsenal at trial.
April 11, 2012: The Sanford Police have said that they did not, and in fact could not, arrest George Zimmerman because he was acting in compliance with Florida’s “stand your ground” law, sometimes called the Castle Doctrine (as in “a man’s home is his castle”) by legal professionals.
In 2005, under then-governor Jeb Bush, Florida passed a law that allows the use of deadly force in the face of an attack without the requirement that you have to back down first. In other states, a defendant can only claim self-defense if he shows that he tried to flee the aggressive situation first.
Former NRA president and Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer explains it like this: “Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.”
Florida is among 24 states that have passed laws saying there is no duty to walk away from the attack before retaliating with lethal force. The law is notoriously unpopular with law enforcement and with prosecutors, who call it the “shoot first, ask questions later” law.
According to Florida courts, a “defendant’s only burden is to offer facts from which his resort to force could have been reasonable” while “the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.”
That means that Florida’s “stand your ground” law grants immunity to people who act to protect themselves if they have a reasonable fear they will be killed or seriously injured. Once a defendant claims he acted in self-defense, the burden to disprove the claim is on the prosecution.
From the perspective of a defendant, that’s a handy-dandy way to get out of a conviction for homicide, assault and battery, assault with a deadly weapon and a host of violent offenses — just tell the court that you were attacked first! And if the other person isn’t alive any more to contradict you, you win.
What’s interesting about this case, though, is that Zimmerman didn’t even have to go tell that to the court. He just told the police, and the police, acting as judge and jury, decided that since it was self-defense, they couldn’t even arrest Zimmerman, much less let him go to court to see if his self-defense story holds water.
Another angle of the analysis is that it might actually have been Trayvon, not Zimmerman, who was entitled to use force under the “stand your ground” law. After all, Trayvon was being pursued and threatened and was in reasonable fear for his life when Zimmerman approached him with a loaded weapon.