News Column

Judge Denies Gag Order in George Zimmerman Murder Case

Oct. 30, 2012

Rene Stutzman

In a blow to prosecutors seeking to muzzle George Zimmerman's defense attorney, Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson on Monday refused to issue a gag order in the second-degree murder case.

In a two-page order, Nelson wrote that she found no "overriding pattern of prejudicial commentary" and noted that a dozen media companies that had opposed the order, including the Orlando Sentinel, were right when they argued that the state had failed to demonstrate prejudice.

The judge also noted that she had several tools to make sure Zimmerman's jury is impartial. She can move the trial to another county, have attorneys question potential jurors one at a time and away from other potential panel members and, once seated, she can give stern instructions about avoiding outside sources of information.

The gag order request was an attempt by Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda to quiet attorney Mark O'Mara, who has been vocal in his defense of Zimmerman and innovative in communicating on his website, Twitter and, for a time, Facebook.

The judge held a 2 {-hour hearing Friday, most of it taken up by attorneys arguing for and against a gag order.

During that hearing, O'Mara said his client had been the subject of a carefully orchestrated national media campaign by attorneys for Trayvon's family, who had traveled the country, portraying the former Neighborhood Watch volunteer as a racist murderer.

De la Rionda accused O'Mara of trying to taint potential jurors. All he wanted, de la Rionda said, is to have a fair trial, and the best way to do that is to prohibit all attorneys from talking about or publishing information about the case.

Also on Monday, Nelson released another ruling granting prosecutors fewer of Zimmerman's medical records than attorneys for Trayvon Martin's family had hoped.

They had asked for all of Zimmerman's medical records, but defense attorneys had squawked, saying that would violate Zimmerman's right to privacy. So the judge looked them over and ruled that the state could only have records she deemed relevant: those related to injuries Zimmerman suffered Feb. 26, the night he shot the unarmed 17-year-old.

"Any injuries received that night would clearly be relevant to a self-defense claim, as would any similar injuries present before that night or continuing symptoms after that night," she wrote. "Observations of the defendant's physical appearance surrounding the date of the shooting may also be relevant. However, other medical records relating to the treatment of untreated maladies should not be disclosed."

During a news conference on the courthouse lawn Oct. 19, about two hours before attorneys presented their case to the judge, family attorney Benjamin Crump called for the release of Zimmerman's prescription and mental health records.

That would be key, he said, to understanding the mind of Trayvon's killer.

The judge's ruling, though, kept those under wraps.

Several months ago O'Mara released a set of office notes from the Altamonte Springs doctor's office where the defendant sought medical care the day after the shooting. They revealed that Zimmerman was taking several prescriptions, including those commonly given to people who suffer from attention deficit disorder, who cannot sleep and who have ulcers or stomach problems.

They also revealed that a physician's assistant the day after the shooting diagnosed him with a broken nose, cuts to the back of his head, two black eyes and back pain.

The judge signed the order on the medical records Friday, and it became public Monday.

In arguing against the gag order Friday, O'Mara said that when he first took Zimmerman's case, his office was inundated with thousands of pieces of email and media queries, so he created a website, where he regularly posts blogs and court documents.

He or a public relations professional also periodically posts short notices on Twitter.

O'Mara abandoned a Facebook page he had set up, he said, because it devolved into Trayvon supporters and Zimmerman supporters spewing vitriol at each other.

But in general, he said he had helped quell tensions around the case without violating Florida Bar rules, which prohibit an attorney from discussing a case if it has a substantial likelihood of prejudicing a proceeding.

A dozen news organizations, including the Orlando Sentinel, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and CNN, opposed the gag order, calling it extreme and unnecessary.



Source: (c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.