George Zimmerman’s defense team has a new, difficult challenge as it prepares for trial in the Trayvon Martin murder case: how to explain an alleged conspiracy involving the defendant's wife, Shellie Zimmerman, and the couple's attempt to keep secret a massive cache of donated funds?
Ms. Zimmerman posted bond on Tuesday after being charged with one count of perjury for allegedly lying to Florida Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester on April 20 when she claimed poverty, even as the couple was communicating by phone about moving more than $130,000 in donated defense funds between various bank accounts.
Ms. Zimmerman’s arrest came two weeks after Judge Lester revoked Mr. Zimmerman’s bond and sent him back to jail for failing to “properly respect the law [and] the integrity of the judicial process” and for sitting “like a potted plant” while leading “the court down the primrose path” with "material falsehoods" about his finances.
The case against Mr. Zimmerman comes down to credibility, as he appears to be the only solid witness to the events of Feb. 26, when he shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, in a case that sparked a national debate about racial profiling and gun rights.
Ms. Zimmerman’s arrest and Mr. Zimmerman's revoked bond came after a trove of evidence – including medical evidence and eyewitness accounts – that seemed to support Mr. Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense: that Trayvon attacked him with a ferocity that made Zimmerman fear for his life.
Given that Mr. Zimmerman has now angered the judge, raised the ire of prosecutors, and created new questions in the public – and a potential jury pool – about his credibility, his defense team, led by Orlando attorney Mark O’Mara, will face a fresh and difficult struggle to separate the facts of the case from the defendant’s foibles, legal experts say.
The couple “really seized defeat from the jaws of victory,” says Scott Greenfield, a New York defense lawyer who has blogged about the Trayvon Martin case and Mr. Zimmerman’s defense. “Clearly, anything that suggests that he’s been deceptive is going to create huge problems for his credibility at trial, and there’s a risk that these questions of whether George Zimmerman is a liar, whether his wife is a liar, whether it’s just all a bunch of lies, could finally resolve a lot of the ambiguity of this case.”
Prosecutors say that just before the April bond hearing, Ms. Zimmerman moved $74,000 in eight smaller amounts – all under $10,000, the point at which the Internal Revenue Service is alerted – from her husband’s account to her own. Days later, Ms. Zimmerman testified by phone at the bond hearing that the couple was basically penniless because they had little savings and George had had to quit his job after the uproar over the shooting.
After the hearing, Ms. Zimmerman used a series of smaller transactions to move another $85,500 from the account, which had been filled through PayPal donations from supporters going to “The Real George Zimmerman” website. Mr. O’Mara has since closed that site and replaced it with an independently managed website.
On Wednesday, O’Mara made his first public statement after Ms. Zimmerman’s arrest, saying he and Mr. Zimmerman are worried about her safety after she left the Seminole County jail. O’Mara has earlier said that the couple was “confused” and “fearful” as Florida prosecutors reversed a local decision to let Mr. Zimmerman go and instead decided to charge him with second-degree murder, a crime for which, if convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
O’Mara’s challenge will be to explain to future jurors the couple’s state of mind, while steering the case back toward the facts at hand, says Mr. Greenfield.
“One of the hardest things is to understand what goes through the mind of a defendant in a high-profile case,” he says. “He probably didn’t have a firm grip on who to trust or what to trust, whether the system itself was trustworthy. There’s a lot of paranoia that tends to permeate attitudes toward the criminal justice system that can cause people to make some poor choices. Once they feel more comfortable with either the system or their lawyer, they come to realize that these choices were pretty boneheaded.”
O’Mara and Mr. Zimmerman return to face Judge Lester on June 29, when the court will review the bond revocation. O'Mara will likely take that opportunity to try to undo some of the damage to Mr. Zimmerman’s credibility and to try to steer the judge – and the American public – back to the facts of the case.
In front of a nation that watched as “Justice for Trayvon” became a rallying cry for thousands of protesters across the country, O'Mara will have a difficult task to rebuild the Zimmermans’ credibility, legal analysts say.
Indeed, the couple's problems may multiply if authorities find that Ms. Zimmerman willfully structured the cash transfers to avoid alerting the IRS, Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor, told the Associated Press. Such diversions, he says, could lead to “serious federal criminal charges.”
“You can’t perpetrate this kind of fraud on the court and expect there’s not going to be consequences,” Florida legal analyst Bill Sheaffer told WFTV, a news station in Orlando.