Judge delays ruling on gag order in Zimmerman case

Published On: Oct 28 2012 12:06:55 AM EDT
Updated On: Oct 28 2012 12:13:20 AM EDT
Trayvon Martin
SANFORD, Fla. -

The prosecutor in the case of a former neighborhood watch leader accused of shooting an unarmed black teenager in central Florida called the conduct of the defense lawyer "a slippery slope" in pleading with the judge Friday to impose a gag order on all attorneys.

Assistant state attorney Bernie de la Rionda wants the order imposed because he believes George Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, has been using a website and both social and news media to influence potential jurors in the racially charged case.

He questioned O'Mara's motives and ethics in publicly questioning the credibility of potential witnesses in the high-profile case.

"My concern is if we are going to be able to pick a jury in Seminole County or anywhere else in the state of Florida?" De la Rionda told the judge. "Commenting on the credibility of witnesses? Why do we have an ethical rule about that?"

After hearing more than an hour-and-a-half of arguments, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson delayed issuing a written ruling until at least Monday.

The 29-year-old Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting last February of Trayvon Martin, 17.

Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty and claims the shooting was self-defense under the state's "stand your ground" law. Zimmerman and Martin got into an altercation inside a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is Hispanic.

O'Mara denied that he had crossed any ethical lines, but said he's sought to combat what he believes are attempts by attorneys for Martin's parents to paint Zimmerman as a "racist murderer."

"We had to do something to deal with the enormity of information flowing in the case," O'Mara said. " ... And we did it in a way we thought was principally presented."

O'Mara launched a website, as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts, earlier this year. He cited a need to diffuse fraudulent Internet entities that claimed to come from Zimmerman. O'Mara contends he didn't discuss any specific evidence and has complied with all bar rules.

The judge ruled on several other motions Friday, including setting a date for a hearing on the "stand your ground" self-defense immunity for 45 days before trial. Nelson previously scheduled Zimmerman's murder trial for June 10. A status hearing is set for mid-December.

In addition, Nelson gave the prosecution redacted copies of Zimmerman's medical records from his doctor visits in the weeks following the Feb. 26 shooting. The state had requested more records than it previously had been provided.

She took out only information she said was not pertinent to the Martin case specifically. Zimmerman has claimed that the reason she shot the teen was because he feared for his life after Martin began to slam his head against the ground during a fight.

Nelson also will allow the defense to seek copies of any additional materials that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement may have collected in the case that may have not been previously provided.

She also denied a defense request to have several Sanford police officials sequestered before giving depositions to the defense.

The prosecution had its first motion for a gag order denied in April by the previous judge in the case, Kenneth Lester.

An appeals court forced Lester to step down from the case in August after it overturned his decision not to withdraw. O'Mara alleged that the judge made disparaging remarks about Zimmerman's character and advocated for additional charges against him in setting his $1 million bond in July. The judge had revoked Zimmerman's first bond, saying he had lied to the court about how much money his website had raised.

Friday was the first time that Nelson has been presented with the gag order request since taking over the case.

De la Rionda argued in court filings that since Lester's denial of the gag order in April, O'Mara had "continued to have an inordinate amount of media coverage" with both Zimmerman and his attorney appearing on national television to talk about the case.

O'Mara in turn called the attorneys for Martin's parents— Benjamin Crump and Natalie Jackson — "state surrogates" for what he said have been their public attacks on Zimmerman by accusing him of profiling Martin.

"Crump and Natalie Jackson decided they would go to make this a national case because sometimes there's a pot of gold at the end of these cases," O'Mara said. " ... I'm not saying they are in a conspiracy, but they are in effect presenting the state's case."

Crump issued a statement in response late Friday.

"The motion for the gag order did not come from the family of Trayvon Martin; it came from the State of Florida," the statement said. "We will continue to represent our clients in a professional manner and push for them to have their day in court. All that Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin have ever asked for from day one is for a jury to weigh all of the relevant evidence and render a fair and unbiased verdict in this case."

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