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Judge demands information about $200,000 in Zimmerman accounts

This news story was published on April 27, 2012.
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By Rene Stutzman, The Orlando Sentinel –

SANFORD, Fla. — A judge in the George Zimmerman case said Friday that he wants more information about the $200,000 donors sent to the defendant’s PayPal accounts.

Meanwhile, an attorney for the family of slain teen Trayvon Martin expressed outrage about Zimmerman’s money, saying the court should revoke his bond immediately. That didn’t happen at Friday’s hearing in Sanford.

“They tried to portray themselves as indigent that they did not have any money,” Trayvon family attorney Benjamin Crump told CNN.

Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, said he has taken control of the money and was not aware of the donations during the April 20 bond hearing.

About $5,000 of the donor money was used to post Zimmerman’s bond, O’Mara said.

At the bond hearing, Zimmerman had access to the funds and heard his wife say they had no savings.

O’Mara said he believed it was an oversight — not intentional deception — that his client didn’t disclose the money during the bond hearing.

O’Mara said he found out about the money four days after the bond hearing when he asked his client to shut down his website. Zimmerman then asked him then what to do with all the PayPal donations.

O’Mara said there was about $150,000 left when he took control. The family also used the money on living expenses and on setting up somewhere secure for him to stay.

O’Mara said he did not foresee the judge increasing his client’s bond because of the donations.

“150,000 dollars is a high bond,” he said.

He said there was not one or two huge Internet donors but several people, some who gave hundreds of dollars.

He said he’d do everything in his power to keep their names private, including possibly risking a contempt ruling by keeping them secret if the judge orders him or special prosecutor Angela Corey to release them.

The money has since been deposited in trust accounts managed exclusively by O’Mara, he told Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Lester Jr.

O’Mara asked the judge if he could disclose a donor list and information about who had authority over the accounts in a private meeting to avoid publicly exposing contributors to “ridicule and danger.”

He said he will file a motion soon, asking the judge to protect from release the names of witnesses.

“We have to do it,” he said, “in a way that protects the sanctity of the witnesses.”

Earlier in the courtroom, he said he fears that witnesses will refuse to cooperate out of fear of harassment.

He has not seen the state’s evidence against his client and is eager to, he said. Although Friday was the deadline for him to get it, he said he wants a delay of several days or weeks to keep news organizations and others from getting it.

That means there likely will be another hearing at which media lawyers will request full disclosure.

O’Mara also said that with the Internet gifts, he now expects to be paid. He bills $400 an hour, he said, and predicted this is a $1,000-an-hour case. He already has spent 130 hours on it, he said.

When asked about comments by an attorney for Trayvon’s family, who criticized his failure to earlier disclosure of the Internet gifts, O’Mara pointed out that the family also is accepting donations via a website.

“Everyone is seeking donations in this case, including the Trayvon Martin family,” he said.

He noted that he set up a new website for his client,

At Friday’s hearing, Lester rejected the prosecution’s request to raise Zimmerman’s bond, as well as Corey’s request for a gag order on O’Mara.

He said he would not hear arguments about a gag order and he praised both Corey’s office and O’Mara for tamping down emotions in this case.

O’Mara said he was concerned about a gag order, noting that he’s been very careful not to discuss the facts of the case in media interviews.

He also noted that this is the most “significant media event” in the country right now and “handlers” for others involved in the case are frequently commenting in the media.

Also Friday morning, attorneys for the Orlando Sentinel, WFTV-Channel 9, NBC, CNN, The New York Times and other media companies gathered in court to fight for access to records in the Zimmerman case.

Some of what they’re demanding was released Monday, a week after they made their requests.

Those are the records in Zimmerman’s court file, such things as his written plea of not guilty and a request by his lawyer that an earlier judge step aside because of a potential conflict of interest.

Another set of much-sought-after records may be another, bigger fight. Those are the ones collected by the special prosecutor and spelling out what evidence she has against Zimmerman.

Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder for shooting Trayvon, an unarmed black 17-year-old to death in Sanford Feb. 26.

Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, said he shot in self defense.

Two weeks ago, Zimmerman’s lawyer formally asked Corey to provide the records by today, a deadline she is required by law to meet.

Once she provides them to him, they’re public records, meaning they should be available to anyone who asks for them.

But the day after Zimmerman’s arrest, O’Mara asked that those records be sealed, and Corey’s trial lawyer, Bernie de la Rionda, agreed, and so did Seminole County Judge Mark Herr.

Friday morning, O’Mara indicated he wanted evidence sealed, saying witnesses out of fear may refuse to cooperate.

De la Rionda said he wants the names and addresses of witnesses kept secret.

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