Zimmerman Succeeds in Booting Trial Judge #3

Posted August 30, 2012 in Crime Criminal Law by

Judge Kenneth Lester Jr.

George Zimmerman’s legal team has succeeded in kicking yet another judge off the case, with a Florida appeals court ruling on Aug. 29 that Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. must step down.

Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

In a 2-1 decision, the court said that while the allegations standing alone wouldn’t require Lester’s removal, “and while this is admittedly a close call,” taken together, Zimmerman’s allegations that the judge made disparaging remarks about his character, offered personal opinions about evidence, held over Zimmerman’s head the threat of future proceedings and advocated for his prosecution (and his wife’s) for other charges were enough to boot the judge.

The dissenting appeals judge pointed out that “adverse rulings are not, in and of themselves, sufficient to require the granting of a motion to disqualify.” The judge said that even though Lester clearly had “an exceedingly strong belief” that Zimmerman had “tried to manipulate” the system by hiding money, it wasn’t enough to merit his removal.

The state will not appeal the ruling, according to Timothy Lange on the Daily Kos blog.

Zimmerman based his challenge of Lester’s impartiality mainly on statements the judge made in an order resetting bail to $1 million after learning that Zimmerman and his wife had not disclosed their full financial resources, which had been buffered by donations from the public. In that order, the judge said Zimmerman had “flouted the system” and warned of future contempt charges. Judge Lester denied Zimmerman’s request that he step down on August 1.

“Most judges would have denied the motion as did Judge Lester,” wrote Jonathan Turley, J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University Law School, on his blog Res Ipsa Loquitur. “This type of statement at a bond hearing is not uncommon even if some would argue that there were mitigating circumstances for Zimmerman.”

The rule applied by the appeals court to determine whether Lester should be removed — whether Zimmerman reasonably feared that he wouldn’t receive a fair trial because of specific prejudice or bias of the judge — is designed to err on the side of the defendant in close calls, Turley said.

Judge Debra S. Nelson

“Zimmerman’s probably hoping that the third judge will be the charm for him,” wrote Staci Zaretsky on Above the Law. According to the Miami Herald, Zimmerman’s defense team asked the first judge to step down because of a conflict of interest; she agreed. The second judge also had a conflict with the defense team and recused himself. Lester was actually the third judge to sit for the criminal trial. Maybe the fourth will be the charm.

It won’t take long to find out: Debra S. Nelson, another Seminole County circuit judge with a “reputation for handing down tough sentences” according to Lange, was reportedly selected to replace Lester on Aug. 30.

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