Monday, June 25, 2018

Bail set at $1 million for George Zimmerman

ORLANDO — A judge set bail at $1 million Thursday for former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, calling into question Zimmerman's honesty and suggesting that he had plotted to flee the country.

Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester's eight-page order was sprinkled with words like "false testimony,'' ''misled,'' ''conceal'' and ''flee'' more than a dozen times. At one point, Lester accused Zimmerman of trying to manipulate the system.

Zimmerman remained Thursday evening in the Seminole County jail, where he awaits his second-degree murder trial in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager whom Zimmerman encountered in his gated neighborhood in Sanford. He has pleaded not guilty.

It was the second time Zimmerman had been granted bail. Lester revoked his first $150,000 bail after he found that Zimmerman and his wife misled the court about their finances. Zimmerman also failed to disclose he had a second passport after turning in one passport to the court.

The judge's doubts about Zimmerman's honesty could hurt a possible self-defense claim under Florida's ''stand your ground'' law, legal experts said.

"Under any definition, the defendant has flaunted the system," Lester said in his order. "Although there is no record of flight to avoid prosecution, this court finds that circumstances indicate that the defendant was preparing to flee to avoid prosecution but such plans were thwarted."

Lester said that 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 were not 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 telephone 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 bail hearing.

"Trayvon Martin is the only male whose youth is relevant to this case," Lester wrote.

The judge set much stricter bail terms than those established during Zimmerman's April hearing. The 28-year-old must stay in Seminole County — he was allowed to leave Florida after his first release.

Lester's strong rebuke underscored the difficult road Zimmerman has ahead before this judge, legal experts said.

It is Lester who would decide in a "stand your ground" hearing whether Zimmerman's case should be tossed out on the basis of Florida's self-defense immunity law.

"Mr. Zimmerman is not held in any high esteem by this court," said Karin Moore, a law professor at Florida A&M University College of Law. "I think that could matter if there is a 'stand your ground' hearing. . . . It's a matter of credibility. There is no one else to testify to support the self-defense claim."

"Judge Lester didn't like being lied to," said Orlando lawyer Blaine McChesney, who has been following the case. "It is apparent from the opinion that had Judge Lester felt he had more discretion under the current law, he would have denied a bond."

Arrangements for Zimmerman's release were unclear Thursday.

He will have to pay a bail bond company $100,000 and have collateral worth $1 million. Neither Zimmerman nor his family have that amount in collateral, attorney Mark O'Mara said on the Zimmerman defense website. The fund now has $211,000 in it, O'Mara said.

"For those who have given in the past, for those who have thought about giving . . . now is the time to show your support," O'Mara said.

The vitriol that was directed at Zimmerman after Martin's death during the Feb. 26 confrontation has died down, but the intense media scrutiny of the case also will keep the spotlight on Zimmerman once he is released, with local media following him everywhere he goes.

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 investigation.

Martin's parents and supporters say that the teen 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.

Zimmerman has said that it was Martin who was the aggressor. The medical report in the case says that Zimmerman had scalp wounds, black eyes and a broken nose.

Prosecutors said a website Zimmerman created for his legal defense had raised $135,000 at the time of his first bail 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.

Prosecutors 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.

Shellie Zimmerman faces arraignment at the end of the month on a perjury charge; she was freed on bail.

During Zimmerman's second bail hearing last week, O'Mara sparred with prosecutors over those finances and questioned why his client is in jail at all, arguing that Martin's actions led to his death. O'Mara said that his client was confused, fearful and experienced a moment of weakness when he and his wife misled the court.

The judge didn't buy it and chided Zimmerman for misleading even his attorney. O'Mara has said he didn't know how much money had been raised by the website at the time of the April hearing.

"The defendant has tried to manipulate the system when he has been presented the opportunity to do so," Lester said.

The "stand your ground" law allows individuals to use deadly force provided they are doing nothing illegal and relieves them of a duty to retreat if they believe their lives are in jeopardy. The law allows defendants to make their self-defense case at a hearing presided over by a judge and without the use of a jury. If the judge deems self-defense was justified, the case can be dismissed without going to trial.

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.

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