Judge's rebuke to George Zimmerman: turning point in Trayvon Martin case?

The judge presiding over the Trayvon Martin murder case issued a harsh rebuke this week of George Zimmerman's dealings with the court. That probably won't serve the defendant well at his Stand Your Ground hearing, analysts say.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP
Judge Kenneth Lester on June 29, conducts a bond hearing for George Zimmerman at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Fla.. Lester ruled Thursday, July 5, that Mr. Zimmerman, who had been returned to jail after first bond was revoked, could be free on $1 million bail.

George Zimmerman, who stands accused of killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, hasn't done himself any favors with the court during his bond escapades, the judge overseeing his case made clear this week. And that, say some legal analysts, could come back to haunt him during the next major step in his defense: the self-defense hearing.

Although Seminole County (Fla.) Judge Kenneth Lester ruled Thursday that Mr. Zimmerman, who had been returned to jail after first bond was revoked, could be free on $1 million bail, his order also gave a stiff assessment of the defendant's actions to date. 

George Zimmerman, the judge's summation said, had masterminded a plot with his wife to manipulate the criminal justice system, may have planned to use $130,000 in donated money to flee the country before trial, and whose lawyer improperly portrayed him in court hearings as a scared young man, when the “only male whose youth is relevant” was Trayvon Martin.

With Judge Lester’s stern order, it appears that a case that many experts expected would be difficult for the prosecution to prove has become more problematic for Zimmerman. His defense team will have to lay out its version of events leading up to Trayvon's shooting against the backdrop of Zimmerman's damaged credibility – in front of a judge whose neutrality about the defendant's honesty has been sorely tested. 

“A witness’s credibility is everything, and the judge views everything Zimmerman says with a suspicious eye,” Mark NeJame, an attorney in Orlando, Fla., told the Palm Beach Post on Friday. 

Zimmerman has said that he simply stood his ground, as permitted under Florida law, and shot Trayvon in self-defense after the boy attacked him. The prosecution, which has charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, says the defendant profiled Trayvon as a criminal, followed him, confronted him, and then shot and killed him when Trayvon defended himself.

Under Florida law, anyone claiming a Stand Your Ground defense is allowed a pretrial hearing before the judge. The defendant gets to make his case, per a landmark 2005 law, as to why he had no duty to retreat and how he used reasonable force in self-defense. If the judge agrees, the defendant is granted immunity from prosecution, and the case is thrown out.

At that as-yet-unscheduled Stand Your Ground hearing, Zimmerman is widely expected to take the stand to explain what happened, and also to be cross-examined by prosecutors, legal experts say. 

Lester is the judge who will preside over that hearing. 

“As a human being, Lester is going to be suspicious of Zimmerman’s testimony, but as a judge, and he is a good judge, he’s going to put his feelings aside and review the facts of the case, including Zimmerman’s testimony and the physical evidence,” says Blaine Chesney, an Orlando defense attorney who has been following the case. “So, will this order complicate Zimmerman’s case? Yes. But will Judge Lester be fair and impartial? The answer to that is yes, as well.”

In his order on Thursday, Lester zeroed in on the heart of the case, after reprimanding Zimmerman for “manipulating” the court and his own attorney. “The only issue is the viability of the defendant’s self-defense/Stand Your Ground claim,” he wrote.

Referring to last week’s bond hearing, at which Zimmerman was mum, Lester noted the defense’s reluctance to put Zimmerman on the stand. The defense, he wrote, “did not offer any explanation of or justification for [Zimmerman's] deception that was subject to cross examination.”

The Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon in Sanford, Fla., set of a firestorm of protest nationwide after local authorities initially declined to charge Zimmerman, saying they had no reason to doubt his claim of self-defense. But even as thousands protested the fact that an armed half-white, half-Hispanic man went free while an innocent black teenager lay dead, thousands of other Americans sent money for Zimmerman’s defense, believing he was railroaded by prosecutors and the media for doing something that they, too, would have done.

It remains uncertain whether Zimmerman will be released on bond for a second time. Lester wrote in his order that he didn’t intend the $1 million bond as a punishment, but rather as a means to reduce the risk of Zimmerman taking flight. But the bond nevertheless may have the result of leaving Zimmerman in jail.

Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman's attorney, said it’s not clear his client will be able to post the bond, because the family doesn’t have $1 million in collateral. Some bailbondsmen, however, say they’d accept the arrangement because the defendant, at this point, poses a low flight risk. Previously, Zimmerman was allowed to live out of state pending trial, but now he must stay in Seminole County and cannot enter the premises of Orlando International Airport. A second passport Zimmerman acquired after the shooting has also been seized by the state.

Mr. O’Mara wrote in a blog post on Thursday that Zimmerman has $211,000 in donations, but noted that will not be enough to pay for both the 10 percent required on the $1 million bond and other expenses, including legal fees. Saying that donations had slipped from about $1,000 a day after Zimmerman returned to jail on June 3, O’Mara urged current and new donors to resume giving to the cause. 

“For those who have given in the past, for those who have thought about giving, for those who feel Mr. Zimmerman was justified in his actions, for those who feel they would do the same if they were in Mr. Zimmerman’s shoes, for those that think Mr. Zimmerman has been treated unfairly by the media, for those who feel Mr. Zimmerman has been falsely accused as a racist, for those who feel this case is an affront to their constitutional rights – now is the time to show your support,” O’Mara wrote.

Some $20,000 in donations have come in since Lester ruled on the bond.

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