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.
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.
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.
Trayvon's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, have scheduled a Friday press conference to protest the request to open their son's school records, saying it's an attempt to revictimize the slain boy.
On the night of Feb. 27, Trayvon had left the house where his father was staying in Sanford to get some goodies at a convenience store, but he never returned home. His father found out the next day that Trayvon had gotten into an altercation with Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman who, after an alleged scuffle, is reported to have pulled out a gun and shot Trayvon at close range in the chest, killing him.
When police refused to prosecute Zimmerman, citing the state’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law, Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, rallied civil rights leaders to speak out about what they saw as an injustice.
Such “stand your ground” laws, which state that lawful citizens have no “duty to retreat” from dangerous situations, have been under scrutiny since the shooting. Trayvon’s parents this week launched a new website, ChangeforTrayvon.com, in which they say those laws “allow individuals to shoot first and ask questions later.”
The shooting sparked protests in dozens of US cities. The subsequent decision to prosecute Zimmerman has also led critics to allege prosecutorial overreach, saying evidence and testimony raise doubt about which man was the aggressor.
Zimmerman's lawyers have said their client's injuries the night of the shooting – skull lacerations and a broken nose – prove that he was acting in self-defense. The prosecution has said that Zimmerman initiated the altercation, escalated it, and then used a gun to kill an unarmed child.
The central tenet of the case remains a few key seconds when, witnesses told investigators, Trayvon had Zimmerman on the ground. One witness said Trayvon was pummeling him “MMA-style” (mixed martial arts). Zimmerman told police that he believed Trayvon was trying to reach for his gun when he pulled it out and fired.
Nelson and a potential jury will grapple with difficult legal questions while weighing the credibility of the key witness, Zimmerman himself.
“Unnecessary does not mean unlawful, and just because somebody whose stupidity or an excess of testosterone puts himself in a situation where he has to use deadly force, the defense argument is that he still has a right to defend himself, and that is a justifiable argument that could be made in this situation,” says Professor Dekle.
“Let’s say you walk up to somebody and slap him in the face and he turns around and decides to try to use deadly force against you,” he adds. “Because you provoked that situation, under the law you don’t have a right to stand your ground, but under preexisting law, if you get backed into a corner, where you cannot retreat anymore, you still have a right to defend yourself, and use deadly force doing it.”
That issue – whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense – will be heard at a “stand your ground” mini-trial, probably in April or May. If Nelson rules for Zimmerman at that hearing, charges would be dropped, and Zimmerman would be immune from a civil lawsuit.
As with the previous judge, Nelson will be under pressure to rule against “stand your ground” immunity and instead send the case to a jury. Some community leaders have raised concerns about social unrest should Zimmerman be deemed not guilty.
“Of course I can’t say anything specifically about this judge, but I have seen judges in similar situations initially deny [self-defense] motions, let the jury decide, and then come back and review the decision after the conviction and then revisit the immunity issue and dismiss the case,” says Dekle. “There could be a stimulus on the part of the judge in a situation like this to see if the jury will take care of it for them.”
Zimmerman, who is in a secret location somewhere in Florida's Seminole County, was not in court Wednesday but is expected to appear Friday.