SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — Trayvon Martin’s shooter must return to jail, a judge ordered Friday in a strongly worded ruling that said George Zimmerman and his wife lied to the court about their finances to obtain bond in a case that hinges on jurors believing his account of what happened the night the teen was killed.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder for the February shooting. The neighborhood watch volunteer says he shot Martin in self-defense because the unarmed 17-year-old was beating him up after confronting Zimmerman about following him in a gated community outside Orlando.
Zimmerman was arrested 44 days after the killing, and during a bond hearing in April, his wife, Shellie, testified that the couple had limited funds available. The hearing also was notable because Zimmerman took the stand and apologized to Martin’s parents.
Prosecutors pointed out in their motion that Zimmerman had $135,000 available then. It had been raised from donations through a website he set up and they suggested more has been collected since and deposited in a bank account.
Shellie Zimmerman was asked about the website at the hearing, but she said she didn’t know how much money had been raised. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester set bail at $150,000. The 28-year-old was freed a few days later after posting $15,000 in cash — which is typical — and has since been in hiding.
Prosecutor Bernie De la Rionda complained Friday, “This court was led to believe they didn’t have a single penny. It was misleading and I don’t know what words to use other than it was a blatant lie.” The judge agreed and ordered Zimmerman returned to jail by Sunday afternoon.
“Does your client get to sit there like a potted plant and lead the court down the primrose path? That’s the issue,” Lester said. “He can’t sit back and obtain the benefit of a lower bond based upon those material falsehoods.”
The judge questioning Zimmerman’s truthfulness could undermine the defendant’s credibility if it is brought up at trial, which could happen, and may complicate how his defense presents him as a witness, said Orlando-area attorney Randy McCLean, who is a former prosecutor.
Witness accounts of the rainy night Martin was shot are spotty. There is no video of the fight, though photos prosecutors have released showed Zimmerman with wounds to his face and the back of his head. His recollection of what happened is key.
“The other key witness, unfortunately is deceased,” McClean said. “Basically, Zimmerman is going to be asking the jury to believe his version of the facts … As the case stands now, his credibility is absolutely critical to the case.”
The defense countered that Zimmerman and his wife never used the money for anything, which indicated “there was no deceit.” O’Mara said it wouldn’t be a problem to bring Zimmerman back into custody by the deadline.
The judge said he would schedule a hearing after Zimmerman is back in custody so he could explain himself.
Police in Sanford did not immediately arrest Zimmerman, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law that gives wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat in a fight if people believe they are in danger of being killed or seriously injured.
Zimmerman’s credibility with the judge would be important if O’Mara tries to get a judge without the jury to dismiss the charges based on the law, said Orlando defense attorney David Hill.
“If he was in on something that was not truthfully revealed to the judge, when there is a ‘stand your ground’ hearing, of course you’re going to second-guess him,” Hill said.
Both McClean and Hill said O’Mara would be able to challenge the admissibility of the bond revocation at trial by questioning its relevance.
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, said his clients have always said Zimmerman should remain in jail until trial, which O’Mara said he believed wouldn’t be until next year.
Crump was asked if he thought that if Zimmerman would be willing to lie about his finances that he would be willing to lie about what happen the night Martin was killed.
“We fully expect that the special prosecutor will make George Zimmerman’s credibility be front and center in this entire case,” Crump said. “And whatever dishonesty that comes forth by George Zimmerman that they can prove, you can best believe it will become the issue of this case.”
Prosecutors also said although Zimmerman surrendered a passport at the bond hearing, he had a second one he didn’t report that he and his wife during jail conversations spoke about keeping in a safety deposit box.
However, Lester dismissed that concern as the equivalent of someone who has lost a driver’s license, applies for a new one and then finds the old one.
Also at Friday’s hearing, De la Rionda and O’Mara asked a judge to stop the public release of witness names and statements made by Zimmerman to police officers. Those documents normally are part of the public record under Florida law, and the judge agreed.
Lester said he would order the release of the documents once he has reviewed them and redacted items that aren’t subject to disclosure under the state’s public records law.
A consortium of more than a dozen media groups, including The Associated Press, asked the judge to ignore the request, saying such records are presumed to be publicly available under Florida law.
The revocation of Zimmerman’s bond also puts pressure on O’Mara to not delay the trial, McClean said.
“When your client is out on bond, the pressure is much lighter to rush to trial … because your client is sitting at home,” he said. “When your client is sitting at the Seminole County Jail, your client is going to want this resolved.”