Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

The legal players in the Trayvon Martin case

The two prosecutors in the George Zimmerman case are veterans with more than 100 Jacksonville-area murder cases between them. The new Orlando defense attorney is a calming presence with decades of experience defending accused killers.

The Sanford judge assigned to the case is a newcomer — she has been on the bench a scant 16 months — with no experience handling high-profile murder cases.

Over the coming months in a Seminole County courtroom, prosecutors Bernardo De La Rionda and John Guy, defense attorney Mark O'Mara and Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler will be the key legal players in Florida vs. Zimmerman, a courtroom drama likely to play out on a national stage.

The case that has sparked protests and rallies in Florida and across the country quickly moved into the courts Thursday after the announcement a day earlier by Duval County State Attorney Angela Corey that her office was charging Zimmerman, 28, with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Sanford police did not initially charge Zimmerman in the Feb. 26 slaying, saying the state's self-defense law prevented his arrest.

Corey, who herself will likely be present in the courtroom, has assigned the case to De La Rionda and Guy, her two top homicide prosecutors.

In Jacksonville, De La Rionda has won convictions of some of the county's most heinous killers. Just last month, he secured a death sentence against a Georgia man who used Craigslist to meet a Navy wife, stabbing her 89 times. In 2010, the FBI honored him with a "Director's Community Leadership Award" for his work in crime prevention.

Jacksonville defense attorney Tom Fallis, who has tried cases against Corey and her two top assistants for years, described Guy as cool and meticulous.

"He has a very good demeanor about him. In my opinion, he's probably the best that they have in that office," Fallis said. His own client, a truck driver accused of slaying a co-worker in a jealous rage, was convicted by Guy in January, he noted.

He said De La Rionda, the other prosecutor, is "a lot more combative and he gets very emotional. Bernie sometimes gets carried away. Sometimes he goes over the top, but he's a competent trial lawyer."

Guy, in court Tuesday for a Jacksonville first-degree murder trial, said he would not comment on the Zimmerman case until it was complete.

"It's just my blanket position," he said. "I never comment on a case until it's over."

Going against De La Rionda and Guy will be O'Mara, 56, a well-respected criminal defense lawyer who has also served as a television legal analyst. He replaced Zimmerman's two previous defense lawyers, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, who stepped down from the case Tuesday in a now-infamous press conference where they announced their client had stopped returning their calls and they couldn't locate him.

In contrast, O'Mara is known as a savvy litigator who has handled many high-profile trials, including at least three death penalty cases. A lawyer for almost 30 years, O'Mara is board-certified in both criminal law and family law.

"He's very professional," said Jeff Ashton, a former prosecutor who tried three murder cases against O'Mara. "He's not necessarily the guy who always seeks out the high-profile cases."

He also gets high marks for his courtroom demeanor. "Mark has a very calming way about him," said Orlando attorney Diana Tennis, a colleague and friend. "He's known as being very collegial. That's how you get good deals for your clients."

But O'Mara can be a shrewd tactician. In 1992, O'Mara defended Gerard Booker, the ringleader of a Polk County gang accused of murdering two men. With a potential death sentence looming, O'Mara advised his client to plead guilty and waive a jury trial on the death penalty, leaving the decision to the judge alone. The judge gave Booker a life sentence.

"He really saved his client's life," said Ashton, the prosecutor on the case.

O'Mara also has had his share of difficult clients. Among them: Frederick Pete Cox, a suspected serial killer of prostitutes who for years pretended to be paralyzed and refused to move his legs. Cox is serving three life terms in prison.

Overseeing it all will be Recksiedler, 39, who was elected to the bench in 2010 — winning the endorsement of the man she replaced, longtime Seminole County jurist O. H. Eaton Jr.

Court observers said Recksiedler runs an efficient courtroom, and they do not expect her lack of experience to become an issue.

"She's competent, very intelligent and will be very capable on this case," said Ric Stanley, president of the Seminole County Bar Association.

"If she's not all that familiar with an issue, she is open to reviewing the case law and considering the issue deliberately, instead of just making a quick decision," said Bill Ponall, president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

Before she became a judge, Recksiedler worked as a prosecutor, handling juvenile sex crimes. She is a graduate of Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, and she has been a lawyer for 15 years. She is also board certified, one of only 4,500 of 90,000-plus Florida lawyers deemed to be a specialist. In her case, the specialty is civil law.

But Recksiedler has not experienced the crushing media presence Zimmerman's case will generate. Her most high-profile case to date is that of Nioshka Bello, who is accused of using a bra to strangle her toddler in September 2009 just outside Sanford. Bello, 24, is accused of first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.

Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report from Sanford. Toluse Olorunnipa reported from Jacksonville.

 
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