ORLANDO, Fla. — The neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Trayvon Martin can be released from jail on $1 million bond while he awaits trial on a second-degree murder charge, a judge ruled Thursday.
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester granted bond to George Zimmerman for a second time. Lester had revoked Zimmerman's $150,000 bond last month after 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 he wasn't working.
The judge made his decision after listening last week to Zimmerman's attorney and a forensic financial analyst explain why he wasn't more forthcoming.
The judge expressed his unhappiness with Zimmerman and said that his actions suggest a possibility that he was preparing to flee to avoid prosecution.
"Under any definition, the defendant has flaunted the system," Lester wrote in the order. "The defendant has tried to manipulate the system when he has been presented the opportunity to do so."
Lester said he was granting bond because Zimmerman posed no threat to the community, and Florida law requires that most defendants receive bond if they pose no threat and can assure their presence for trial. The judge's order requires Zimmerman to be electronically monitored and residing in Seminole County, prohibits him from opening a bank account or obtaining a passport and implements a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Zimmerman had been allowed to leave Florida under the conditions of his first bond release.
Prosecutors previously argued Zimmerman and his wife talked in code during recorded jailhouse conversations about how to transfer the donations to different bank accounts. For example, George Zimmerman at one point 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.
Zimmerman's attorney Mark O'Mara sparred with prosecutors over those finances last week and questioned why his client is in jail at all, arguing that Martin's actions led to his death.
O'Mara ultimately decided against calling his client to the stand during last Friday's hearing, unlike during the first bond hearing, when Zimmerman apologized to Martin's family.
The defense attorney called Zimmerman's father to testify, and played a chilling 911 call from the Feb. 26 night when Martin was killed. The call includes a disputed cry for help and the fatal gunshot. Robert Zimmerman said he was sure that was his son's cry.
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.
Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting the unarmed 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 that the teenager was targeted because he was black and that 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. Justice Department probe. -- (AP)
SANFORD, Fla. — A routine bail hearing for George Zimmerman took a surprising turn into remorse and explanation Friday when the neighborhood watch volunteer got on the witness stand and told Trayvon Martin's parents: "I am sorry for the loss of your son."
"I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. I did not know if he was armed or not," Zimmerman said, marking the first time he has spoken publicly about the Feb. 26 shooting of the unarmed black 17-year-old.
The hearing wrapped up with a judge ruling Zimmerman can be released from jail on $150,000 bail while he awaits trial on second-degree murder charges. He could be out within days and may be allowed to live outside Florida for his own safety once arrangements are made to monitor him electronically.
Defendants often testify about their financial assets at bail hearings, but it is highly unusual for them to address the charges, and rarer still to apologize.
An attorney for Martin's parents, who were in the courtroom when Zimmerman spoke, spurned the apology. The parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, had no comment as they left.
"This was the most disingenuous and unfair thing I've seen," said attorney Natalie Jackson. "This was the most unmeaningful apology."
In a measure of how volatile the case has become, Zimmerman appeared to be wearing a bulletproof vest under his suit and tie, and his parents and wife testified via telephone because of fears for their safety.
After the hearing, Zimmerman's lawyer, Mark O'Mara, acknowledged that putting Zimmerman on the stand was risky but said his client wanted to respond after Martin's mother said in an interview that she would like to hear from him.
"He had always wanted to acknowledge what happened that day," O'Mara said. "I was hoping that it could be accomplished in a private way. We weren't afforded that opportunity."
Stacey Honowitz, a Florida prosecutor with no connection to the case, said: "I think it was to sway public opinion. He's not incriminating himself. He is setting up his self-defense claim."
In agreeing to let Zimmerman out on bail, Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester said he cannot have any guns and must observe a 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew. Zimmerman also surrendered his passport.
Zimmerman will need to put up 10 percent, or $15,000, to make bail. O'Mara said he expects the family to come up with the amount. Zimmerman's father has indicated he may take out a second mortgage.
Zimmerman worked at a mortgage risk-management company at the time of the shooting and his wife is in nursing school. A website was set up to collect donations for Zimmerman's defense fund. It is unclear how much it has raised.
Bail is not unheard of in second-degree murder cases, and legal experts had predicted it would be granted for Zimmerman because of his ties to the community, because he turned himself in after he was charged last week, and because he has never been convicted of a serious crime.
Prosecutors had asked for $1 million bail, citing two previous scrapes Zimmerman had with the law, neither of which resulted in charges. In 2005, he had to take anger management courses after he was accused of attacking an undercover officer who was trying to arrest Zimmerman's friend. In another incident, a girlfriend accused him of attacking her.
The hearing provided a few glimpses of the strengths — and weaknesses — in the case being built by the prosecution.
Dale Gilbreath, an investigator for the prosecution, testified that he does not know whether Martin or Zimmerman threw the first punch and that there is no evidence to disprove Zimmerman's contention he was walking back to his vehicle when confronted by Martin.
But Gilbreath also said Zimmerman's claim that Martin was slamming his head against the sidewalk just before he shot the teenager was "not consistent with the evidence we found." He gave no details.
In taking the stand, Zimmerman opened himself up to questions from a prosecutor, who grilled him on whether he made an apology to police on the night of the shooting, and why he waited so long to express remorse to Martin's parents.
Zimmerman said he told police he felt sorry for the parents. He also said he didn't say anything to them sooner because his former attorneys told him not to.
As part of the bail hearing, Zimmerman's family testified that he wouldn't flee if released and would be no threat to the community.
"He is absolutely not a violent person," said his wife, Shellie Zimmerman.
Zimmerman's father, Robert Zimmerman, said that even when confronted, his son was likely to "turn the other cheek." The father also described his son's injuries the morning after Martin was shot, saying he had a cut and swollen lip, a protective cover over his nose and gashes on the back of his head.
Zimmerman's mother, Gladys, said her son worked with two black children as part of a mentoring program that required him to venture into a dangerous neighborhood. "He said, 'Mom, if I don't go, they don't have nobody,'" she recalled. -- (AP)
ORLANDO, Fla. — The judge presiding over the Trayvon Martin shooting case on removed herself Wednesday after the attorney for defendant George Zimmerman argued she had a possible conflict of interest that related to her husband.
Judge Kenneth M. Lester Jr. will preside over the case. The next judge who would be in the court rotation, John D. Galluzzo, also cited a conflict, so Lester was selected, according to a news release from the court.
Florida Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler had said she would make a decision by Friday, when a bond hearing for Zimmerman had previously been set. Her husband works with Orlando attorney Mark NeJame, who was first approached by Zimmerman's family to represent the neighborhood watch volunteer.
But NeJame declined and referred them to Mark O'Mara, who is now representing Zimmerman. NeJame has since been hired by CNN to comment on the case.
Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder for the Feb. 26 shooting of the 17-year-old Martin. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Martin was unarmed.
Galluzzo said he had a conflict because of his personal and business relationship with O'Mara.
O'Mara said he requested that Recksiedler step down now because the case is just beginning. Recksiedler was assigned the case after Zimmerman's arrest last week. -- (AP)
SANFORD, Fla. — After weeks in hiding, George Zimmerman made his first courtroom appearance Thursday in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and prosecutors outlined their murder case in court papers, saying the neighborhood watch volunteer followed and confronted the Black teenager after police dispatchers told him to back off.
The brief outline, contained in an affidavit filed in support of the second-degree murder charges, appeared to contradict Zimmerman's claim that Martin attacked him after he had turned away and was returning to his vehicle.
In the affidavit, prosecutors also said that Martin's mother identified cries for help heard in the background of a call to police as her son's. There had been some question as to whether Martin or Zimmerman was the one calling out.
The account of the shooting was released as Zimmerman, 28, appeared at a four-minute hearing in a jailhouse courtroom, setting in motion what could be a long, drawn-out process, or an abrupt and disappointingly short one for many of the Martin family's supporters because of the strong legal protections contained in Florida's "stand your ground" law on self-defense.
During the hearing, Zimmerman stood up straight, held his head high and wore a gray jail jumpsuit. He spoke only to answer "Yes, sir," twice after he was asked basic questions from the judge, who was not in the courtroom but on closed-circuit TV. The defendant's hair was shaved down to stubble and he had a thin goatee. His hands were shackled in front of him.
He did not enter a plea; that will happen at his arraignment, which was set for May 29.
To prove second-degree murder, prosecutors must show that Zimmerman committed an "imminently dangerous" act that showed a "depraved" lack of regard for human life. The charge carries a mandatory sentence of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life.
The special prosecutor in the case, Angela Corey, has refused to explain exactly how she arrived at the charge. But in an affidavit filed with the court, prosecutors said that Zimmerman spotted Martin while patrolling his gated community, got out of his vehicle and followed the young man.
Prosecutors interviewed a friend of Martin's who was talking to him just before the shooting. His parents' lawyer has said that Martin was talking to his girlfriend back in Miami.
"During this time, Martin was on the phone with a friend and described to her what was happening," the affidavit said. "The witness advised that Martin was scared because he was being followed through the complex by an unknown male and didn't know why."
During a recorded call to a police dispatcher, Zimmerman "made reference to people he felt had committed and gotten away with break-ins in his neighborhood. Later while talking about Martin, Zimmerman stated 'these a------s, they always get away' and also said 'these f-----g punks,' said the affidavit, available at http://apne.ws/Itn7Nu .
It continued: "When the police dispatcher realized Zimmerman was pursuing Martin, he instructed Zimmerman not to do that and that the responding officer would meet him. Zimmerman disregarded the police dispatcher and continued to follow Martin who was trying to return to his home."
"Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued," prosecutors said in their account. The account provided no details on the struggle other than to say that witnesses heard numerous calls for help and that Martin's mother reviewed the calls to police and recognized her son's voice crying for help.
Zimmerman told authorities that Martin attacked him as he going back to his vehicle, punched him in the face, knocked him down and began slamming head against the sidewalk.
At Thursday's hearing, the case was assigned to Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler, a 39-year-old former assistant state attorney from Sanford who was elected to the bench in 2010. Zimmerman is being held without bail at the county jail.
For all the relief among civil rights activists over the arrest, legal experts warned there is a real chance it could get thrown out before it ever goes to trial because of Florida's expansive "stand your ground" law, which gives people a broad right to use deadly force without having to retreat from a fight.
At a pretrial hearing, Zimmerman's lawyers would only have to prove by a preponderance of evidence — a relatively low legal standard — that he acted in self-defense in order to get a judge to toss out the second-murder charges. And if that fails and the case does go to trial, the defense can raise the argument all over again.
There's a "high likelihood it could be dismissed by the judge even before the jury gets to hear the case," Florida defense attorney Richard Hornsby said. Karin Moore, an assistant professor of law at Florida A&M University, said the law "puts a tremendous burden on the state to prove that it wasn't self-defense."
Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, said his client will plead not guilty. At some point soon, the lawyer is expected to ask the judge for a hearing on the "stand your ground" law.
"It is going to be a facet of this defense, I'm sure," O'Mara said in an interview. "That statute has some troublesome portions to it, and we're now going to have some conversations and discussions about it as a state. But right now it is the law of Florida and it is the law that is going to have an impact on this case."
Martin family and their lawyer acknowledged the arrest is just a first step.
"I think that it will start the process that we are pushing for," said Martin's father, Tracy Martin, "but we can't just stop because we have an arrest. We got to keep pushing to get a conviction and after a conviction we have to certainly continue to push to get a stiff sentence."
Martin family attorney Ben Crump said he wants to make the repeal or the amending of "stand your ground" laws in Florida and other states to be a big part of Trayvon Martin's legacy. "We're not the wild, wild west," Crumb said.
As for Zimmerman, O'Mara said after the court appearance: "He is tired. He has gone through some tribulations. He is facing second-degree murder charges now. He is frightened. That would frighten any of us."
"He has a lot of hatred focused on him right now," O'Mara said. "I'm hoping that the hatred settles down now that we're moving forward." -- (AP)