A new judge has been appointed to hear the case of George Zimmerman, accused of second-degree murder in Trayvon Martin's shooting in February.
Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. will replace Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler, who recused herself from the case Wednesday after defense attorney Mark O'Mara raised conflict of interest questions last week.
The announcement of the new judge in the nationally spotlighted case came on the same day that Florida International University hosted Martin's mother during a memorial to the slain teen Wednesday. Jahvaris Fulton, Trayvon Martin's brother and an FIU student, also attended the event, where students asked supporters to sign a petition recalling Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law.
Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, shot Martin, 17, on Feb. 26, after confronting the teen, whom he believed to be suspicious. Sanford police cited Florida's self-defense law in not initially charging Zimmerman. A specially appointed prosecutor, Angela Corey, earlier this month announced the second-degree murder charge.
Zimmerman's defense attorney, O'Mara, had asked Recksiedler to disqualify herself from the case after she revealed a potential conflict of interest: Her husband works with an Orlando-area lawyer, Mark NeJame, who was originally approached to represent Zimmerman on the case. NeJame, who also is providing on-air legal analysis for CNN on the case, declined and referred the case to O'Mara. The defense lawyer's exact reasons in asking for the judge's disqualification remain unknown to the public — the court file has been sealed by court order.
According to a news release issued by a court spokeswoman Wednesday, the judge found the individual reasons "legally insufficient" but nevertheless removed herself from the case because of "the cumulative effect of the events and the totality of the circumstances."
Another judge, John D. Galluzo, could not be appointed because of his own potential conflict of interest: O'Mara has been his business partner. Instead, Lester was appointed.
Chief Judge Alan Dickey, who appointed Lester, said in a statement: "Even though Judge Recksiedler had to grant the motion for disqualification in this case, she is very capable of presiding over this or any other criminal case and I have complete confidence in Judge Lester as well."
Lester will preside over Zimmerman's scheduled bail hearing Friday. Several news agencies, including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, are also asking to be heard in court to unseal the court record.
Lester, 58, has been a judge for 15 years, presiding over several high-profile murder cases.
He was the judge in the Michael Reynolds murder case, in which the day laborer got into a dispute with a couple, brutally killing them and their 11-year-old daughter. Lester sentenced Reynolds to two death sentences plus life in prison in 2003.
The next year, he meted out a death sentence to a handyman in the ax murder of a 71-year-old Oviedo man.
Lester, who was raised in Central Florida, graduated from the University of Florida's College of Law and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1980. For 16 years, he was in private practice concentrating on criminal and family law, according to a biography released by the Seminole County Courts. A Vietnam combat veteran, he is married to Dorothy Sedgwick, a homicide prosecutor in the Orange County State Attorney's Office. They have two grown children.
Since his election to the bench in 1996, Lester has often topped annual judicial polls by two professional lawyer groups. In addition to the criminal divisions of circuit court, Lester has served in juvenile, delinquency, dependency, probate, guardianship and mental health. In 2003, he told the Orlando Sentinel: "Everybody just wants to be treated reasonably and wants a fair shake."
Back in Miami-Dade, several dozen students led the memorial at FIU's Biscayne Bay campus Wednesday with Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, and Jahvaris Fulton.
One elected official, Florida Sen. Gwen Margolis, spoke out against the "stand your ground" law, suggesting legislators were misled into voting for the law, approved in 2005, which eliminated a citizen's duty to retreat before using deadly force against an attacker. Margolis, D-Miami, apologized for voting for a law that she said she believed only applied to people defending themselves in their own home — not for vigilantes chasing down others on the streets.
"I was so horrified and embarrassed that we could be fooled by someone who told us this tale about how you have to protect your own and everyone fell into line," Margolis said, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council think tank, which pushed for the law. "We were all kind of duped."
Miami Herald staff writer Audra D.S. Burch contributed to this report.