The new judge in the George Zimmerman murder case will be Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr., who has been on the bench 15 years.
The case passed to him Wednesday, but not before things got a bit complicated.
It was originally assigned to Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler, but she recused herself Wednesday after Zimmerman’s attorney asked her to step aside because of a possible conflict of interest: Her husband is the law partner of Mark NeJame, who has been hired to comment on the case for CNN.
All criminal cases in Seminole County are assigned by chance, based on a rotation system. Next in that rotation was Circuit Judge John Galluzzo. He could not accept the case because he formerly practiced law with Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara. O’Mara also is the godfather of one of Galluzzo’s four children.
So Galluzzo stepped aside, passing the case to Lester.
He plans to preside at Zimmerman’s bond hearing Friday morning in Recksiedler’s courtroom, 5D at the Seminole Criminal Justice Center.
Dozens of news organizations are expected to be there. Zimmerman’s case has become a cause celebre and one of the most racially divisive in the country.
He shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old, on Feb. 26 as the teenager walked through Zimmerman’s Sanford neighborhood. Critics accused Zimmerman of racial profiling and Sanford police of botching their investigation.
When police did not immediately arrest him, people protested across the country.
Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, the state attorney in Jacksonville, ordered Zimmerman’s arrest April 11 on a charge of second-degree murder.
Lester, 58, has been a judge since 1997. He got the job the hard way: He ran against an incumbent and won.
He is popular with attorneys and has a reputation for doing things quickly.
Orlando attorney Wayne Klinkbeil was an assistant public defender assigned to Lester’s courtroom when the judge first took the bench. Lester, he said, is a very good judge.
He is consistent, a tough sentencer, Klinkbeil said, “very in control of his courtroom, very straightforward with expectations.”
The judge has a great deal of experience with criminal trials, including high-profile cases. He gave Michael Reynolds two death sentences plus a life prison sentence for beating and stabbing a Geneva, Fla., couple and their 11-year-old child to death in 1998.
Lester sentenced ax murderer and handyman John Michael Buzia to death in the killing of a 71-year-old Oviedo, Fla., man.
Lester grew up in Orlando, the son of an engineer and executive secretary.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and was deployed to Vietnam. When he returned, he received a degree in accounting then went to law school at the University of Florida.
He was in private practice 17 years.