Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has been appointed to replace Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester in the George Zimmerman trial for the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin. Nelson was appointed just one day after the Fifth District Circuit Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach ordered Lester off the case. Judge Nelson is now the third judge to be appointed in the Trayvon Martin killing.
She is also the very same judge who is hearing the perjury case of Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie. She is charged with lying about the family finances during Zimmerman’s initial bond hearing.
The old adage, “Be careful what you ask for….” might just apply here. Referring to Zimmerman and his attorneys, Jose Baez, defense attorney in the“tot mom” trial, said in response to this new ruling by the Appeal Court: “I don’t think they did themselves any favors. She [Judge Nelson] has a reputation of being more pro-prosecution than the previous judge. We have an expression: ‘The devil you know is much better than the devil you don’t.’ ”
Zimmerman’s attorneys were upset because they believed Judge Lester was obviously biased against their client. He wrote an eight-page bond ruling that accused Zimmerman of deliberately attempting to deceive the court by not revealing the family’s full financial wherewithal, and by refusing to seal evidence that the defense argued would poison the jury pool, thus making it impossible for Zimmerman to receive a fair trial.
But let’s look at the evidence so far. Despite his written bond ruling chastising Zimmerman, Judge Lester allowed Zimmerman to get out of jail not just once, but also after Zimmerman was caught red-handed lying about how much money he and his wife actually had. In that regard, Attorney Luis Calderon, president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (CFACDL), said that “Lester’s bark is worse than his bite.” And Calderon knows Judge Nelson well: “She’s a tougher judge than Lester — not that her sentences are harder, or that she treats defendants with ill will, but she doesn’t let attorneys fall asleep at the wheel. If you need more time, you better have a good reason.”
Interestingly, the CFACDL polls attorneys yearly about their attitudes, beliefs, and experiences with Seminole County judges. Judge Nelson usually polls at the bottom of most categories while Judge Lester scores at the top.
A 1999appointee, Calderon does not hold the low poll results against Judge Nelson. “She’s a very good judge,” declared Calderon. “She doesn’t succumb to pressure. She’s going to do what she’s got to do. She’s very tough, but fair.”
In any event, “judge shopping” is a tricky business. As a paralegal, I have seen a fair number of motions to recuse. They usually fail. This is Zimmerman’s third judge, and as stated, the same judge who is presiding over his wife’s case. That case, of course, is based on her alleged lies in his bond hearing -- the same bond hearing that later so rankled Judge Lester. At first blush, it seems that at the very least, a “conflict of interest” on the part of Judge Nelson may at least be possible.
In his bond ruling, Judge Lester had accused Zimmerman of deliberately, consciously "manipulating" the court specifically to make it easier for him to receive a low bond. Despite the Appeals Court ruling against him, it appears that the judge may have been on to something here.
As stated above, however, Judge Nelson may be more problematic for Zimmerman and his attorneys than even Judge Lester. Surely, Zimmerman has run out of "get out of jail free" cards by now.
Still, judging from Zimmerman's record laid down so far, if Judge Nelson displeases Zimmerman or his attorneys, may we expect yet another spin of the judicial roulette wheel from Zimmerman and his defenders?