Online donations to George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain charged in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, are being used to help pay for Mr. Zimmerman's living expenses, security, and defense counsel – a development that the defendant's lawyer this week acknowledged is somewhat "controversial."
Earlier in the case, Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, had characterized his client as indigent, noting that his family has "limited means" and that Zimmerman himself can no longer work amid concerns about his safety stemming from the highly charged atmosphere surrounding Trayvon's death.
But this week Mr. O’Mara acknowledged that Internet donations will allow Zimmerman to draw $50,000 between now and his trial for second-degree murder. Zimmerman, who is out of jail on a $150,000 bond, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, ahead of an Aug. 8 court hearing. He is in hiding and his whereabouts are not publicly known.
O’Mara, a criminal defense lawyer from central Florida, also indicated that money pouring in from Zimmerman supporters means he himself will be paid for at least some of his work, after originally agreeing to take on the defense as a pro bono case. According to a new website, more upscale than Zimmerman’s original “The Real George Zimmerman” site, support for Zimmerman has been “warm,” with donations ranging from $10 to $500 per person.
But O’Mara also acknowledged that using social media to raise money for defense and living expenses is a “controversial” step that challenges legal traditions.
Social media is "now a critical part of presidential politics, it has been part of revolutions in the Middle East, and it’s going to be an unavoidable part of high profile legal cases,” he writes on the new website. "We understand that this is controversial, but Mr. Zimmerman deserves a fair trial, and mounting a defense is an expensive proposition."
Florida Judge Kenneth Lester, who is presiding over the case, so far has not changed the conditions of Zimmerman's bail, even though the suspect's full financial resources were not disclosed at his April 20 bond hearing. Judge Lester is currently weighing other issues in the case, particularly the extent of the public's right to know certain details, such as the names of witnesses to the shooting or the names of people who have donate to Zimmerman's defense fund.
After local police in Sanford, Fla., declined to arrest Zimmerman after the Feb. 26 shooting, a public outcry ensued. Local authorities said Zimmerman's claim of self-defense left no probable cause to charge him. Six weeks later, a Florida special prosecutor reversed that decision, charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder for allegedly racially “profiling” Martin as a criminal and then chasing him down, against the advice of a police dispatcher, and shooting him during a physical tussle. Trayvon was African-American. Zimmerman is half white, half Peruvian.
Zimmerman told police he was returning to his car after losing track of Trayvon, whom he considered “suspicious,” when the 17-year-old attacked him, pummeling him to the ground and bashing his head against a concrete sidewalk. Fearing for his life, he grabbed his pistol and fired, according to early police accounts.
Outrage over Zimmerman's release – centered on why an armed adult could, without consequence, shoot and kill an unarmed teenager targeted while doing nothing wrong – sparked threats and even a bounty on Zimmerman’s head by a radical black nationalist group.
The case also touched two live wires in the culture: race relations, especially society's perceptions of young black men, and the expansion of liberalized gun laws that allow people not only to carry concealed weapons, but also to use them in self-defense in public areas, with no legal obligation to try to retreat from trouble.
Trayvon Martin’s family members received support for their quest for an arrest from civil rights leaders and thousands of Americans who marched in the streets on his behalf. Zimmerman’s support has come largely from gun rights supporters and Americans who believe Zimmerman has been victimized by a media witch hunt that has falsely portrayed the shooting as racially motivated.
In a recent poll, 21 percent of Florida residents say they believe Zimmerman is innocent of the charges against him.
Some have spoken out publicly in his defense. “This is a guy who thought he was doing the right thing at the time, and it's turned out horribly wrong," Joe Oliver, a black neighbor who spoke in his defense, told the Associated Press in March.
Others have quietly sent money for his defense, usually in $20 increments. Some conservative pundits, meanwhile, have voiced their concerns more publicly.
“I don’t know for sure if Zimmerman is a murderer, or a victim who fought back, or something in-between,” writes Jim Treacher, a columnist for the conservative Daily Caller website. “And neither does anybody else. The loudest voices just have what they think they already know about him, and everything else is just their frantic attempts to reinforce that belief. Who else has to be hurt over this?”
The donated funds became an issue during early court hearings. Once Zimmerman revealed the funds to O'Mara, the lawyer had to back pedal, acknowledging to the judge that Zimmerman had more financial resources than had been disclosed at a bond hearing. O’Mara has said Zimmerman will have no direct access to the funds as he awaits trial from an undisclosed location, where he’s under curfew and must wear a GPS tracking device.