The judge overseeing George Zimmerman’s murder trial wrote a stern eight-page order Thursday that set bail at $1 million and said the former neighborhood watch volunteer thumbed his nose at the judicial system as he plotted a life on the run.
Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester ordered Zimmerman to remain in Seminole County, doing away with the special perk that had allowed Zimmerman to await trial in hiding out of state before his initial bail was revoked. Lester said nothing in the defense team’s presentation in a three-hour hearing last week explained why someone would stash a second passport and $135,000 if it wasn’t to jump bail.
“Notably, together with the passport, the money only had to be hidden for a short time for him to leave the country if the defendant made a quick decision to flee,” Lester wrote. “It is entirely reasonable for this court to find that, but for the requirement that he be placed on electronic monitoring, the defendant and his wife would have fled the United States with at least $130,000 of other people’s money.”
He rejected the defense argument that Zimmerman, 28, was young and confused when he instructed his wife, in jailhouse phone conversations, to transfer all the funds he raised online out of his name and allowed her to lie about it under oath at his initial bond hearing.
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“Trayvon Martin is the only male whose youth is relevant to this case,” Lester wrote.
Lester’s strong rebuke underscored the difficult road Zimmerman has ahead before this judge, legal experts said. It’s Lester who would decide in a “Stand Your Ground” hearing whether Zimmerman’s case should be tossed out on the basis of self-defense immunity. Zimmerman’s life is now in the hands of a judge who said the defendant “manipulated” and flouted the court.
“A witness’ credibility is everything, and the judge views everything Zimmerman says with a suspicious eye,” said Mark NeJame, an Orlando attorney and CNN analyst whom Zimmerman consulted before hiring his current lawyer, Mark O’Mara. “Now O’Mara is going to face the tough decision whether to ever put him on the stand again.”
The judge noted in his ruling that Zimmerman even lied to his attorney by suggesting he could not pay for his defense.
“I have had a lot of clients like that,” NeJame said. “Some I fired. Some I told over and over, like a mantra, ‘tell the truth.’ At the end of the day, I’m going home. If he insists on lying or being less than forthright, he may not.”
Zimmerman faces a second-degree murder trial for shooting Trayvon to death on Feb. 26. Zimmerman insists he shot the unarmed Miami Gardens teen in self defense after an unprovoked attack that cost him a broken nose.
Thousands of people around the country believe him and feel he was railroaded by the special prosecutor and the media. They donated more than $200,000 to his legal defense fund — money Zimmerman hid from the court at his initial bond hearing on April 20.
Several hours after the judge’s ruling Thursday, the defense attorney posted a public plea for more contributions. He said the gifts dwindled when Zimmerman was behind bars, because supporters feared the account would be wiped out.
“In the next hours and days the defense team will be working to get George released on bail and on effective strategies for moving forward. Much of our decision-making will be based upon the funds available for mounting a defense,” O’Mara wrote on his website.
“For those who have given in the past, for those who have thought about giving, for those who feel Mr. Zimmerman was justified in his actions, for those who feel they would do the same if they were in Mr. Zimmerman’s shoes, for those that think Mr. Zimmerman has been treated unfairly by the media, for those who feel Mr. Zimmerman has been falsely accused as a racist, for those who feel this case is an affront to their constitutional rights — now is the time to show your support,” O’Mara wrote.
He said Zimmerman and his family do not have “anywhere near” $1 million to post as collateral.
Longtime bail bondsman Jack Benveniste said there’s nothing in the law that requires collateral, so Zimmerman should be able to pay the 10 percent bondsman fee and be released.
“This kid can’t disappear. That’s a safe bond,” said Benveniste, who owns All Dade Bail Bonds in Miami Beach. “He’s very visible: It would take two minutes to find him. I think he’s being punished by the judge. I’d write that bond with my eyes closed.”
The bond, Benveniste noted, will make a dent only in the attorney’s fees.
The legal defense fund — www.gzdefensefund.com — has a $211,000 balance, O’Mara wrote, and there are about $40,000 in payables for defense expenses so far, not including attorney fees, O’Mara wrote.
Hefty costs such as expert witnesses, deposition costs, private security and Zimmerman’s living expenses are ahead. “Paying bond and scheduled expenses would effectively wipe out the existing balance,” O’Mara said.
Although Judge Lester said he suspected Zimmerman was going to flee, the state did not prove its argument that Zimmerman should have no bond. The judge made his decision based on prior case law in which bond terms were violated.
“The increased bond is not a punishment,” Lester added. “It is meant to allay the court’s concern that the defendant intended to flee the jurisdiction and a lesser amount would not ensure his presence in court.”
Zimmerman had been free on $150,000 bail, but was sent back to jail last month after his attorney revealed that the defendant had misinformed the court about how much money he had. The judge said the misrepresentation could be interpreted as a third-degree felony, but Zimmerman has not been charged with lying on his bond application.
Prosecutors provided bank records that showed that on April 20, the day of Zimmerman’s original bond hearing, he had $135,000 in cash at his disposal, even as his family professed to be broke. Taped jailhouse phone calls between him and his wife showed he had instructed her to transfer money he had raised online out of his bank account into hers.
“Even though the defendant was in jail at the time, he was intimately involved in the deposit and transfer of money into various accounts,” Duval County Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda wrote. “Defendant was directing the show.”
For saying under oath that she did not know how much money they had raised and that the couple had no assets, Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie, was charged with perjury.
Prosecutors also said the taped calls show the couple talking about the whereabouts of Zimmerman’s second passport.
In his ruling, Judge Lester added that he could no longer consider Zimmerman’s “family ties” as a positive factor, as his family showed willingness to lie in court or allow a deception to stand without reporting the fraud. The bond needed to be set high, he said, because Zimmerman’s loss of money he never earned through hard work would be of little consequence to him.
“It can be deemed almost as ‘found money,’” the judge wrote.
If he is able to post bond, Zimmerman must check in with the court’s pretrial release department every 48 hours; wear an electronic monitoring device; maintain a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew, and refrain from drinking or maintaining a bank account. He’s barred from entering Orlando International Airport and getting another passport.
“Trayvon’s parents would rather that the killer of their unarmed child remain in jail until the trial; however they respect the ruling of the court and the strong message that the judge sent that deference to judicial integrity is paramount to all court proceedings,” the parents’ attorney, Benjamin Crump, said in a statement. “Furthermore, they understand that this is not a sprint to justice, but a long journey to justice that they must bear for their son Trayvon.”