Safety, Location at Issue if Zimmerman Released

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  • After spending a week in a jail cell by himself, the neighborhood watch volunteer charged with murdering Trayvon Martin stands a good chance of being granted bail Friday, despite the severity of the second-degree murder charge he faces.

    Whether George Zimmerman is allowed to leave the county as he awaits trial — and how he would remain safe — are two questions likely to be at the center of the hearing at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, legal experts say.

    “Although it’s not routine for people charged with murder to get bond, they do get bond, and I think there is an excellent argument to be made in his specific case for him to be released on bond,” said defense attorney Randy McClean, who practices in Seminole County, about 15 miles northeast of Orlando.

    Zimmerman has several factors in his favor. For one, he has ties to the local community including family members who are expected to testify by telephone on his behalf at Friday’s hearing.

    He turned himself in voluntarily after second-degree murder charges were filed against him last week, a good indication that he doesn’t pose a flight risk. He has never been convicted of a crime, which suggests that he doesn’t pose a threat to society, legal experts said.

    “It’s hard for a prosecutor to argue he will leave, when up to this point he has been cooperative and everyone knows who he is,” said Stacey Honowitz, a veteran prosecutor in Broward County.

    A spokeswoman for special prosecutor Angela Corey’s office said she wouldn’t comment on whether Corey would object to Zimmerman being released on bond.

    Zimmerman’s safety weighed on the mind of his defense attorney right after he took on the case last week. Mark O’Mara indicated he would ask that Zimmerman be allowed to leave the area, if he is granted bond, because of those concerns. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester was assigned the case Wednesday after a previous judge recused herself because of a potential conflict of interest.

    “Normally, the conditions are that you stay local. I think that is going to be difficult,” O’Mara said in an interview. “I think nobody would deny the fact that if George Zimmerman were walking down the street today, he would be at risk. That is a reality.”

    O’Mara has also said he would prefer that Zimmerman be released so he can assist in building a defense case.

    The judge would have discretion to allow Zimmerman to live elsewhere along with a number of restrictions such as a curfew, regular reporting requirement and possibly an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet, said Florida International University law professor Joelle Moreno.

    “That would be the kind of low-cost agreement between Zimmerman and the court that might make sense, so we’re not talking about police protection for an extended period of time,” Moreno said.

    O’Mara said he would ask for assistance from law enforcement. Kim Cannaday, a spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, said she couldn’t comment on what security procedures will be in place for Zimmerman if he is released. The sheriff’s office does have the ability to monitor defendants outside the county if a judge requests a GPS monitor to be used as a condition of release.

    “I want him to be safe,” O’Mara said. “I want him to get to his trial so that a judge or jury, or the prosecutor and I, can figure out a way to resolve this.”

    There is only so much that law enforcement can do to help protect Zimmerman, though, if he is released from jail, said Michael Grieco, a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor who is now in private practice.

    “There is no mechanism in which a defendant is entitled to an around-the-clock detail,” Grieco said. “The irony is that the only safe place for him, considering the current atmosphere surrounding the case, is protective custody within the jail system.”

    Jail inmates are separated from other inmates when there is a belief they could face threats. Zimmerman has been in protective custody since he entered the Seminole County jail more than a week ago after turning himself into authorities.

    Witnesses in cases involving violence or threats are frequently afforded protection, but police officers and prosecutors have no special responsibility to protect Zimmerman once he is out of jail, said Jennifer Zedalis, a University of Florida law professor and former public defender in Gainesville.

    “If he gets out, the primary responsibility to protect Zimmerman would be on Zimmerman,” Zedalis said.

    Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the 17-year-old Martin’s death during a Feb. 26 confrontation in a Sanford, Fla., gated community. Martin was walking home from a convenience store when Zimmerman spotted him from his truck and called police to report him as suspicious. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which eliminates a person’s duty to retreat under threat of death or serious injury.

    The lack of an arrest for 44 days spurred protests nationwide, several in Seminole County, in which participants chanted and held signs that said, “Arrest Zimmerman Now!” Anger over a delay in Zimmerman’s arrest led to the Sanford police chief stepping down temporarily and the recusal of the prosecutor who normally handles cases out of Sanford. Sanford city officials were holding a town hall meeting Thursday to address some of the residual anger from the case.

    Under typical bond conditions, Zimmerman would likely have a curfew, be prohibited from contacting Martin’s family and not be allowed to consume alcohol and nonprescription drugs. He also may be required to wear an electronic monitoring device, which he would most likely have to pay for.

    Even if he is granted bond, his family may not be able to afford it, given that it generally can range from $10,000 to $100,000 for a second-degree murder charge. Zimmerman’s parents are retired, and their house in Lake Mary, Fla., is valued at just under $120,000, according to the Seminole County Property Appraiser.

    “They are not a family of means, so that is going to be difficult,” O’Mara said.

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