By Rene Stutzman, Orlando Sentinel –
ORLANDO, Fla. — The 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Wednesday ruled that second-degree murder suspect George Zimmerman should get a new judge.
A three-judge panel of that court concluded that Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. in Sanford, Fla., went too far when he wrote that Zimmerman is a manipulator and made a veiled threat to hold him in contempt of court in the future.
“Although many of the allegations in Zimmerman’s motion (for a new judge), standing alone, do not meet the legal sufficiency test, and while this is admittedly a close call, upon careful review we find that the allegations, taken together, meet the threshold test of legal sufficiency,” the appeal court wrote in its opinion.
The appelate panel directed Lester to “enter an order of disqualification which requests the chief circuit judge to appoint a successor judge.”
Zimmerman is the 28-year-old Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old in Sanford on Feb. 26, setting off weeks of civil rights rallies by people demanding his arrest.
Six weeks after the shooting, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder by a special prosecutor.
Defense attorney Mark O’Mara had pressed for a new judge, arguing that Zimmerman does not believe he will be treated fairly by Lester because of a July 5 bond ruling.
In that nine-page order, the judge set Zimmerman’s bond at $1 million but also accused him of showing “blatant disregard for the judicial system” and “manipulating the system for his own benefit.”
The state argued that Lester should stay on the case, that he’s not biased, just someone who listened to evidence about Zimmerman and his wife hiding assets then not telling the truth about how much money they had during an April bond hearing.
Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie Zimmerman, has since been charged with perjury. She testified at that April 20 hearing that the couple was broke when they had $130,000 that they had been shifting from bank account to bank account, money donated at Zimmerman’s request by online supporters.
George Zimmerman testified at that same hearing but was not questioned about the couple’s finances. He made no attempt to correct his wife’s statements.
If Wednesday’s ruling stands, the case would likely pass to Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson, another felony trial judge in Sanford.