Zimmerman case gets new judge; lawyers say he may regret it

A veteran judge with broad experience and a reputation for being tough on both lawyers and defendants has been assigned to take over George Zimmerman’s murder trial.

Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson is a familiar face to the Zimmerman family: She is the same jurist assigned to handle Zimmerman’s wife’s perjury case.

Zimmerman’s legal team might live to regret forcing the last judge off the case because Nelson runs a tight ship and tends to favor the prosecution, Central Florida lawyers said. A native of South Florida who did a brief stint at the Broward state attorney’s office, Nelson is known for being a no-nonsense judge who keeps lawyers on their toes.

“I don’t think they did themselves any favors,” said attorney Jose Baez, best known for defending “tot mom” Casey Anthony. “She 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.’ ”

Nelson was appointed in a random rotation a day after the Fifth District Circuit Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach ordered Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester to recuse himself. The first judge on the case was also forced off, making Nelson the third judge assigned to the case.

Defense attorneys argued that Lester demonstrated gross bias against the defense by writing a scathing, eight-page bond ruling that accused Zimmerman of manipulating the court by portraying himself as broke when he had actually raised more than $200,000 in donations. The judge also ordered the release of evidence that the defense desperately tried to have sealed.

When Lester declined to step down, defense attorney Mark O’Mara appealed.

Lester’s backers point out that despite having written a caustic bond ruling, Lester granted Zimmerman bond not just once, but also after Zimmerman was caught misrepresenting his finances. Baez said that proved Lester was willing to stand up to public pressure — a crucial judicial virtue in a high-profile case.

“Lester’s bark is worse than his bite,” said Luis Calderon, president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Calderon agreed that O’Mara had little choice but to seek a new judge because Lester’s demeanor changed sharply after Zimmerman was caught misrepresenting his finances. But, like Baez, Calderon suspects getting a new judge may be worse for the defense in the long run.

“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,” Calderon said. “If you need more time, you better have a good reason.”

His organization’s annual poll of local judges show Nelson ranked close to the bottom in most categories. Lester scored highest among Seminole County felony court judges both overall and in the “freedom from bias” category.

Most of the negative comments lawyers wrote about Nelson were related to her refusal to grant continuances, Calderon said.

Nelson graduated from the University of South Florida in 1975. She was first appointed to the bench in 1999 by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Since then, she has presided over felony, civil, family and juvenile cases.

“She’s a very good judge,” Calderon said. “She doesn’t succumb to pressure. She’s going to do what she’s got to do. She’s very tough, but fair.”

Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder for the Feb. 26 killing of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman claims the unarmed high school junior attacked him, forcing him to resort to deadly force.

Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie, was charged with perjury for allegedly lying about the couple’s finances while testifying under oath at her husband’s first bond hearing.

Through an attorney, Trayvon Martin’s parents declined to comment on the latest developments.

“We are trying to respect the court’s ruling and trying to have faith in the court system,” their attorney, Benjamin Crump, said.