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Judge denies gag order in Zimmerman murder case

Published October 29, 2012 8:54 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Miami • George Zimmerman's defense lawyer can continue his controversial social media and public relations strategy, a judge ruled Monday.

Prosecutors handling the second-degree murder charge against Zimmerman requested the gag order because of what they believed was a campaign by the defense to taint the jury.

Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson decided against issuing the gag order in the high-profile murder case, saying that there was no evidence of "an overriding pattern of prejudicial commentary that will overcome reasonable efforts to select a fair and impartial jury."

Assistant Duval County State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda argued that defense lawyer Mark O'Mara had repeatedly broken accepted Florida Bar Association rules regarding what an attorney can say and about what. O'Mara, he said, has commented publicly on evidence, the credibility of witnesses and even his own client.

The two sides faced off during a 2½-hour hearing Friday before Nelson at the Seminole County courthouse in Sanford, Fla.

The Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel and other media companies fought back against the gag order, saying the prosecutor did not present enough evidence to prove it was necessary.

"Judge Nelson recognized that gag orders can be used only as a last resort if there is no other way to make sure there will be an impartial jury," said Scott Ponce, an attorney for The Miami Herald and other media companies. "Judges have a lot of tools they can use to make sure jurors are impartial, and Judge Nelson is going to use those tools instead entering of a gag order."

The judge added that she ruled on the order "without prejudice," meaning the lawyers can file more motions on the issue in the future. It was the second time de la Rionda asked for a gag order.

O'Mara is an Orlando criminal defense lawyer who launched a novel public relations strategy, which included a website dedicated just to that case and a Twitter account. A Facebook page was abandoned when it quickly devolved into bickering among users. He has held occasional news conferences and given both national and local TV and newspaper interviews.

O'Mara said he turned to social media to turn around an onslaught of negative publicity that preceded Zimmerman's arrest. An employee does the bulk of his social media and website announcements.

Trayvon Martin, 17, was in Sanford on Feb. 26 serving out a suspension from Michael Krop Senior High School, where he was a junior. Martin encountered Zimmerman on the way back from a convenience store; the neighborhood watch volunteer did not recognize the teen and found his behavior suspicious.

They struggled, and Zimmerman says he was forced to shoot an unarmed attacker in self-defense.

In a separate ruling, Nelson said prosecutors will not have access to Zimmerman's medical records from before the February shooting.

A trial is tentatively set for June 10.