Trayvon Martin shooting: Should victim's high school file be made public?
The new judge overseeing George Zimmerman's murder trial, Debra Nelson, will on Friday set parameters for how new evidence – including shooting victim Trayvon Martin’s high school file – will be handled and discussed. Trial is set for June 2013.
The legal wranglings in the George Zimmerman murder case in Sanford, Fla., continued this week as a new judge, state Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, took her first peek at what has become one of the country’s biggest and most explosive civil rights cases: the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in February.Skip to next paragraph
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On Wednesday, Judge Nelson set a trial date of June 10, 2013. On Friday, she will hear several defense motions about the handling of evidence and how much information – including Trayvon's high school records and Mr. Zimmerman's medical records – should be made public. She will also get her first look at the 29-year-old Zimmerman.
Appointed to the bench by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Nelson is known as a tough, conservative judge not afraid to impose stiff sentences and allow circumstantial evidence during trial. In 2001, she won the Seminole County Community Child Advocate of the Year Award. Defense attorney Bill Sheaffer, a legal analyst for Florida’s WFTV-Channel 9, has described Nelson as "very hardworking and smart" but also pro-prosecution.
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Nelson was tapped to head the Zimmerman trial in August after a judicial panel found that the previous judge, Kenneth Lester, had begun to form personal opinions about Zimmerman’s character and credibility, raising questions about his impartiality. Judge Lester had in June harshly chastised Zimmerman for helping his wife to lie about the couple’s finances in order to secure a lower bond amount, saying that Zimmerman “flouted” and “tried to manipulate the system.”
After the shooting, Sanford police released Zimmerman, citing his claim of self-defense. Forty-four days later, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder by a specially appointed state prosecutor. The charges followed widespread public outrage and allegations of racism and discrimination against local police, whom protesters claimed would have acted differently if a black gunman had killed an unarmed white victim. Zimmerman is half-Hispanic, half-white.
Florida’s open government transparency laws mean the public has already been exposed to much of the evidence and testimony expected to be presented during trial. Now, the court is considering pretrial issues, including the extent to which police and defense attorneys share information that could influence a jury’s view of the case.
Currently, Nelson is dealing with practical legal questions as well as the deeper moral and ethical dilemmas the trial is likely to present, says law professor George "Bob" Dekle of the University of Florida. “Right now, she’s likely playing catch-up, trying to get up to speed on what the case really involves,” he says.
On Friday, Nelson is set to listen to complaints from Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mark about his difficulty wresting information from the prosecution. The judge will also consider prosecutors' request to see Zimmerman’s medical records, to ascertain whether he was taking any prescription drugs at the time of the shooting. The defense, in turn, has requested access to Trayvon’s school files and records of his social media use.
Trayvon was serving a 10-day school suspension when he was killed. Zimmerman supporters contend that the teen’s school file could paint a less-than-angelic picture of Trayvon – and might suggest that Zimmerman had reason to suspect him of something and to follow him on foot, rather than follow a police dispatcher's suggestion to wait for police to arrive. It’s already public knowledge that Trayvon's suspension was tied to school officials finding on him an empty marijuana baggie.