A judge will weigh several factors Friday in deciding whether to set bond for the neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman who fatally shot unarmed teen Trayvon Martin.
Is George Zimmerman a threat to the community? Is he a flight risk? And maybe most importantly, can Zimmerman persuade the judge he will not be deceptive again?
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester revoked George Zimmerman’s $150,000 bond earlier this month when prosecutors told the judge Zimmerman and his wife misled the court about how much money they had during an April bond hearing.
Prosecutors said a website Zimmerman created for his legal defense had raised $135,000 at the time of his first bond hearing. Zimmerman and his wife did not mention the money then, and Shellie Zimmerman even said the couple had limited resources because she was a student and wasn’t working.
Prosecutors also said the couple talked in code during recorded jailhouse conversations about how to transfer the donations to different bank accounts. At one point, George Zimmerman asked how much money they had. She replied “$155.” Prosecutors allege that was code for $155,000. Their reference to “Peter Pan” was code for the PayPal system through which the donations were made, prosecutors said.
Shellie Zimmerman has since been charged with perjury. She is out of jail on $1,000 bond and her arraignment is set for July 31.
Legal experts say Zimmerman needs a good explanation to convince the judge to let him out of jail again while he awaits trial.
“If his explanation is really weak … I think Lester could keep him in jail,” said Randy McClean, an Orlando-area defense attorney who is following the case. “If he really comes across as being genuine and has a reasonable explanation, because I don’t see how it could be a great explanation, then I think Lester will probably pump up the conditions, up his monetary conditions and let him back on bond.”
Working in Zimmerman’s favor, the judge has said, is he turned himself in when charges were filed and kept law enforcement informed of his location when he went into hiding because of threats against him and his family. Weighing against him is the seriousness of the charge as well as other brushes with the law, including an arrest for resisting an undercover officer.
Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting 17-year-old Martin on Feb. 26 at a gated apartment community in Sanford. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty and claims the shooting was self-defense under the state’s “stand your ground” law.
Martin’s parents and supporters claim the teenager was targeted because he was Black and Zimmerman started the confrontation that led to the shooting. Zimmerman’s father is White and his mother is Hispanic.
The 44 days between the shooting and Zimmerman’s arrest inspired nationwide protests, led to the departure of the Sanford police chief and prompted a U.S. Department of Justice probe.
Zimmerman’s attorney has argued in court papers that he is no threat to the public and proved he wasn’t a flight risk by returning to jail when his bond was revoked. Attorney Mark O’Mara also argued that the bulk of the more than $200,000 raised by the website has now been turned over to a third-party administrator and Zimmerman has no control over the money.
Putting the money in a trust was smart because “now you can argue that the client does not have direct access to that money to flee the jurisdiction of the court,” said Blaine McChesney, an Orlando criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.
Prosecutors have also argued Zimmerman had a second passport he didn’t tell the judge about, but the judge dismissed any worries about it, comparing it to when somebody loses a driver’s license, applies for another one and then finds the old license.
McChesney said there is a good chance the judge will deny bond, in part because of the jailhouse recordings about the money transfers.
“It shows a premeditated intent to hide that,” McChesney said.
The only witnesses O’Mara has listed are two bail bondsmen. But at the last hearing, Zimmerman surprised many people by taking the stand himself and apologizing to Martin’s family.
It may be up to only Zimmerman to re-establish his credibility with the judge, whether he testifies or his lawyer talks for him.
“Credibility is an issue. So O’Mara is going to certainly have to make apologies or Zimmerman will have to make apologies for what happened, and they’re going to have to convince the court that he is a good bond risk,” Karin Moore, a law professor at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando.