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George Zimmerman case spawns lawsuits, legal questions

The judge in George Zimmerman's trial still has two issues to decide. Also, Zimmerman is suing NBC News, bodyguards are suing him, and other lawsuits are possible.

July 21, 2013|By Rene Stutzman and Jeff Weiner
  • Judge Debra Nelson addresses attorneys on the 25th day of George Zimmerman's trial at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Fla.
Judge Debra Nelson addresses attorneys on the 25th day of George Zimmerman's… (Joe Burbank / Pool Photo )

George Zimmerman's murder trial is over — but not the legal wrangling.

Moments after the six-member jury found that Zimmerman had not committed a crime when he killed Trayvon Martin, Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson told the former neighborhood watch volunteer, "You have no further business with the court."

But Nelson has two issues yet to decide: how long to keep juror names secret and whether to fine prosecutors for behavior that defense attorneys say was unethical. Two civil suits are also pending.

The identities of the six women who served as Zimmerman's jury are a secret because of an order by the judge. How long they will remain so is an open question.

Defense attorney Mark O'Mara initially asked that their names be kept under seal permanently, but after more than a dozen media companies objected, Nelson rejected that request.

She signed an order ruling that their names would remain secret during the trial.

O'Mara asked that that be extended for six months. "This should be a sufficient amount of time for any community passions to cool, should an acquittal occur," he wrote in a motion filed June 25, after the jury was sworn in and had begun hearing evidence.

An allegation that prosecutors failed to give defense attorneys damaging evidence from Martin's cellphone and a resulting debate over whether the prosecutors should be sanctioned provided some riveting moments just before the trial began.

Defense attorney Don West was on the witness stand June 6 testifying about what happened and was being cross-examined by Assistant State Atty. Bernie de la Rionda, the lawyer West accused of malfeasance.

"We caught you hiding the information and confronted you about it, and you never gave it to us," West said.

Moments later, when O'Mara tried to call De la Rionda to the witness stand, the prosecutor refused.

O'Mara then suggested prosecutors may have committed "direct criminal contempt," prompting the judge to halt the hearing and say she would take it up after the trial.

She is expected to set a hearing soon.

With the trial over, many who follow the case are speculating about lawsuits yet to be filed: Will Martin's parents sue Zimmerman? Will Zimmerman seek damages?

Two suits are already pending. In one, Zimmerman is suing NBC News, alleging defamation.

He accuses the organization of splicing together two separate portions of his call to police the night of the shooting to make it seem as if he had, unprompted, blurted out that Martin was black. In reality, Zimmerman was answering a question from the dispatcher.

The suit also accuses the network of falsely reporting that during the call, Zimmerman used a racial epithet.

"Defendants pounced on the Zimmerman/Martin matter because they knew this tragedy could be, with proper sensationalizing and manipulation, a racial powder keg that would result in months, if not years, of topics for their failing news programs," the suit says.

NBC said in a court filing that there was no basis for the suit and that it had "fairly and accurately reported about a news event that has captivated the nation."

In a separate suit, former bodyguards for Zimmerman are suing him, his wife and O'Mara, alleging they failed to pay $27,000. O'Mara expressed surprise when told of the suit, saying the Zimmerman defense had paid the company "over $40,000."

rstutzman@tribune.com

jeweiner@tribune.com

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