Thursday, August 30, 2012

George Zimmerman granted new judge on grounds of bias at bail hearing

George Zimmerman scored a significant legal victory on Wednesday night when a Florida appeals court ruled that the judge overseeing his case for the murder of Trayvon Martin must be removed.

A panel of senior judges ruled two to one to side with Zimmerman's lawyer Mark O'Mara, who argued that circuit court judge Kenneth Lester was biased against his client for scathing comments he made at an earlier bail hearing.

Lester had accused the neighbourhood watch captain of "manipulating the system to his own benefit" by failing to declare his wealth from donations to a personal website in order to secure a lower bail amount, then refused to disqualify himself when O'Mara protested.

"While this is admittedly a close call, upon careful review we find that the allegations, taken together, meet the threshold test of legal sufficiency," judges Alan Lawson and Jay Cohen, of the fifth district court of appeals, Daytona Beach, wrote in their majority decision granting O'Mara's motion.

"We direct the trial judge to enter an order of disqualification which requests the chief circuit judge to appoint a successor judge."

The spat with Lester came in June, when prosecutors alleged that Zimmerman hid more than $135,000 in donations to a website he set up to pay for his defence.

Zimmerman's wife Shellie, 25, told Lester at a bail hearing that the couple was virtually penniless, convincing the judge to grant bail at $150,000.

When Lester was informed of the amount of the donations, he revoked Zimmerman's bail then lambasted him in a written decision that raised the bail amount to $1m.

"Under any definition, the defendant has flaunted the system," Lester wrote.  "The evidence is clear the defendant and his wife acted in concert, but primarily at the defendant's direction, to conceal their cash holdings."

O'Mara, who claims the defence fund is now virtually exhausted, accused Lester of making "gratuitous, disparaging remarks about Mr Zimmerman" in documents to the appeals court seeking a writ of prohibition.

"The court has created a reasonable fear in Mr Zimmerman that the trial court is biased against him, and as a result of this prejudice cannot receive a fair and impartial trial," he said.


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