News Analysis: Tension among lawyers rises as Zimmerman trial nears

Published On: Apr 26 2013 05:23:23 PM EDT
Updated On: Apr 26 2013 06:33:25 PM EDT

Local 6 Investigative Reporter Tony Pipitone looks at some of the key legal issues being debated as prosecutors and defense lawyers prepare for the trial of George Zimmerman.

Local 6 Investigative Reporter Tony Pipitone looks at some of the key legal issues being debated as prosecutors and defense lawyers prepare for the trial of George Zimmerman.

Six weeks to go before jury selection, and a flurry of back-and-forth motions reveals just how testy things are getting between the lawyers in the George Zimmerman murder trial.

The tit-for-tat began on March 13, when the lawyers traveled to Miami to depose Witness 8, the 18-year-old woman (now 19) who Trayvon Martin was talking to in the moments before Zimmerman killed him on February 26, 2012.

The defense informed the state in writing that it intended to videotape her deposition, as well as those of Martin’s family members over the following two days.

But prosecutors did not notice the clear defense disclosure, despite the defense even naming the video production company it hired to be on site to make the videotapes. (When you read thousands of pages of court documents, it’s easy to skim over minor variations in what appears to be boilerplate language – and, the state notes, the defense never verbally mentioned their videotape plans to them.)

So lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda was surprised to see a camera and microphones in the deposition room on the morning of March 13 and refused to allow the deposition to go forward on tape. He later wrote in a motion “the only reason” the defense wanted to videotape the Miami witnesses “was to intimidate and harass” them.

Lead defense attorney Mark O’Mara tried to contact Judge Debra Nelson in Sanford to resolve the dispute, but it took more than five hours to get her on the phone to hear arguments. She then sided with the defense, allowing the videotaping, but ordering the tape be sealed. (O’Mara later asked the judge to order the state to pay $4,555 in fees and costs incurred because of de la Rionda’s refusal to allow the deposition to proceed on tape and on schedule.)

Things went downhill from there.

On March 25, the defense filed a motion for sanctions against the state attorney’s office for supposed discovery violations.

The crux of their argument: the state concealed facts about Witness 8’s veracity, causing “additional time, frustration and effort” to ascertain the truth. Therefore, the defense wants the state to pay for the time it wasted and be fined for a “willful and flagrant violation of discovery.”

To prosecutors – who are legally and ethically required to give the defense any evidence it has that might tend to prove the innocence of the defendant -- them’s fighting words.

Before we get into how the state punched back –with a dash of Shakespeare, a sprinkling of Latin and a load of contempt –consider what the defense believes was withheld and whether it is “exculpatory,” that is, tends to prove Zimmerman’s innocence.

Here are the allegations:

  • The state knew Witness 8 was not a juvenile, as the Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump had claimed, but the state concealed that from the defense by redacting her birth date from the interview de la Rionda did with her in April 2012.
  • The state concealed from the defense that Witness 8 admitted in August 2012 she had not been hospitalized from high blood pressure in the days after Martin’s killing. She had previously told Crump she missed Martin’s wake or funeral because she was so distraught over his death, she had to be hospitalized. She repeated that claim under oath to de la Rionda in April 2012. (To be precise – and we do try to be precise in journalism -- under oath she was asked by de la Rionda whether she was in “the hospital or somewhere,” and she answered “yes.”)
  • In her deposition, the defense claims, Witness 8 admitted she “lied” to both Crump and de la Rionda because, on both occasions, Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, was sitting next to her and she “felt the need to deceive as to the reason for not going to (Trayvon’s) wake or funeral,” the defense claimed in its motion for sanctions. (As an aside, the defense questions why the state would have the victim’s mother sitting beside the key witness during a sworn statement, arguing it “places the legitimacy and veracity of the entire statement at issue.”)
  • It wasn’t until March 4, just hours before a hearing where the defense was going to demand the purported hospital records, that the state finally told the defense there were no hospital records because there was no hospital stay.

Well, it took the state only three days to respond to that, in a blistering March 28 pleading that cites the defense motion’s “calumny” (the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another's reputation) and defense attorneys’ “craven” conduct (lacking the least bit of courage; contemptibly fainthearted).

De la Rionda followed the name calling with a touch of condescension, arguing it was not the state’s job to “keep (O’Mara) from publicly humiliating himself and his client.” O’Mara, he wrote, wants to be reimbursed “for time he spent following bad legal strategy and advice from anonymous internet trolls.”

The state said it is “hardly the responsibility of this office to censor” Crump and other civilians.

And, he noted, whether Witness 8 went to the hospital or not is “not exculpatory.... In short, this allegation is rife with sensationalism, yet bereft of substance.”

At best, the state suggests, Witness 8’s conflicting statements may be “impeachment evidence,” meaning the defense could try to use them to attack her credibility when she testifies, if the judge allows it. But it does not help show Zimmerman is innocent.

Then de la Rionda throws in a little dig in Latin, sending us once again to the Internet dictionaries. After accusing the defense of “grandstanding” by “repeating as many times as possible” that Witness 8 lied, he writes: “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus,” literally, “Mountains will be in labor, and an absurd mouse will be born.” It basically means “all that work and nothing to show for it.”

In other words, the defense motion for sanctions is “an absurd mouse.”

For good measure, de la Rionda quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth, saying the motion for sanctions is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Well, it took O’Mara nearly a month, but he finally replied to de la Rionda today (April 26).

O’Mara decided “not to respond to the scurrilous and unfounded personal attacks” by the state, but raised the specter that de la Rionda could be sanctioned or disciplined because, O’Mara claims, his pleading was designed to “disparage, humiliate, offend, disappoint and anger.”

So he asks Judge Nelson to strike the states’ pleading and order “whatever additional sanctions it deems appropriate.”

All the bickering should come to a quick end Tuesday, when all the lawyers (and, perhaps, Zimmerman) will be in court for a slew of motions.

Judge Nelson has shown little patience with lawyers when they digress from the task at hand – litigating a second-degree murder case that could put Zimmerman in prison for life.

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