SANFORD, Fla. — The credibility of Trayvon Martin‘s shooter could become an issue at trial after a Florida judge said that George Zimmerman and his wife lied to the court about their finances to obtain a bond, legal experts say.
That’s because the case hinges on jurors believing Zimmerman’s account of what happened the night that the 17-year-old Martin was killed. Zimmerman wasn’t charged in the case until more than a month after the shooting, as the former neighborhood watch volunteer maintained that he shot Martin in self-defense under Florida’s so-called stand your ground law. Protests were held across the nation, and the case spurred debate about whether race was a factor in Zimmerman’s actions and in the initial police handling of the case. Martin was black; Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is from Peru.
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The questioning of Zimmerman’s truthfulness by the judge on Friday could undermine the defendant’s credibility if it is brought up at trial. It also may complicate how his defense presents him as a witness, said Orlando-area attorney Randy McClean, a former prosecutor.
“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.”
Zimmerman had not turned himself in as of early Saturday evening, the day after his bond was revoked. He must do so by Sunday afternoon.
He went into hiding in the weeks after the shooting amid an impassioned debate about the case, and his exact whereabouts since he bonded out of jail remain unclear. It also was not immediately clear exactly where Zimmerman would surrender.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder for the February shooting. He maintains 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.
Witness accounts of the rainy night that Martin was shot are spotty. There is no video of the fight, though photos released by prosecutors show Zimmerman with wounds to his face and the back of his head.
Zimmerman’s credibility would be important if his attorney, Mark 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.
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. Zimmerman took the stand at the hearing 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 had set up. 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.
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 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.
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.”
The revocation of Zimmerman’s bond also puts pressure on O’Mara not to 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.”