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Judge refuses to step aside in George Zimmerman murder trial

August 01, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Judge Kenneth Lester presides over George Zimmerman's bond hearing in a Seminole County, Florida, courtroom last month.
Judge Kenneth Lester presides over George Zimmerman's bond hearing… (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel…)

The judge sitting on the case of George Zimmerman, accused of second-degree murder in the Florida shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, has refused to disqualify himself and will stay on the case.

In a ruling released Wednesday, Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. rejected a defense motion that he step aside because Zimmerman’s team feared the judge would treat their client unfairly. Lester ruled that the motion was “legally insufficient” for him to recuse himself.

Zimmerman, 28, is accused of second-degree murder in the death of unarmed Martin, 17, on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has admitted to shooting Martin, an African American, but has insisted he acted in self-defense after the two scuffled. Prosecutors and civil rights supporters of the Martin family say that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, targeted Martin because of his race as the teenager returned from a visit to a convenience store.

Zimmerman was originally released on a $150,000 bail bond after he and his wife, Shellie, said they had limited funds because he was out of work and she was going to school. However, Zimmerman didn't mention the more than $150,000 he had raised through his website; further, he'd moved some of the funds around. The defense said the problems were technical, were later fixed and that there was no deliberate attempt to mislead the court.

Shellie Zimmerman on Monday pleaded not guilty to perjury charges stemming from comments she made during her husband’s initial bail hearing.

Two months ago, after the additional funds came to light, Lester revoked Zimmerman’s bond and, at a July 5 hearing, he questioned the defendant’s honesty and whether Zimmerman was preparing to flee the country to avoid trial.

“In doing so, the court has created a reasonable fear in Mr. Zimmerman that this court is biased against him and because of this prejudice he cannot receive a fair and impartial trial or hearing by this Court,” the defense motion argued.

Lester later granted Zimmerman bail a second time, and the defendant is free after posting a $1-million bond.

By Florida rules, Lester is not allowed to deal with the substance of the factual allegations from the defense motion. He must assume those facts are true, but can rule on whether the allegations are sufficient to force him to step down.

“The defendant's verified motion to disqualify trial judge is hereby denied as legally insufficient,” Lester ruled, deciding to stay on the case.

Defense lawyers had no immediate response to the ruling. They can seek an appeal.

Even if Zimmerman's attorneys choose not to appeal, the motion sends a legal warning to the judge that the defense will be watching very carefully and is prepared to seek action if it feels the judge favors the prosecution in the highly contested case.

Lester will be the judge who will preside over Zimmerman’s initial hearing on his claim of self-defense.

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Join Michael Muskal on Google+. Email: michael.muskal@latimes.com

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