SANFORD, Fla. - The man who shot Trayvon Martin must return to jail after a judge ruled Friday that George Zimmerman and his wife lied to the court about their finances to obtain bond.
Zimmerman was arrested 44 days after the killing, and during a bond hearing in April his wife, Shellie, testified that the couple had limited funds available. The hearing also was notable because Zimmerman took the stand and apologized to Martin’s parents.
But prosecutors pointed out in their motion to the judge that Zimmerman had $135,000 available then, money raised from donations through a website he set up. They suggested that more money has been collected since and deposited in a bank account.
Shellie Zimmerman was asked about the website at the hearing, but she said she did not know how much money had been raised. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester set bail at $150,000. The 28-year-old was freed a few days later after posting $15,000 in cash - which is typical - and has since been in hiding.
Prosecutor Bernie De la Rionda complained Friday, “This court was led to believe they didn’t have a single penny. It was misleading and I don’t know what words to use other than it was a blatant lie.’’ The judge agreed and ordered Zimmerman returned to jail by Sunday afternoon.
“Does your client get to sit there like a potted plant and lead the court down the primrose path? That’s the issue,’’ Lester said to Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara. “He can’t sit back and obtain the benefit of a lower bond based upon those material falsehoods.’’
O’Mara said that Zimmerman and his wife never used the money for anything, which indicated “there was no deceit.’’ O’Mara said it wouldn’t be a problem to bring Zimmerman back into custody by the deadline.
The judge said he would schedule a hearing after Zimmerman is back in custody so he could explain himself.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder for the February shooting. The neighborhood watch volunteer has said he shot Martin in self-defense because the unarmed 17-year-old was beating him after confronting Zimmerman about following him in a gated community outside Orlando.
The judge questioning Zimmerman’s truthfulness could undermine the defendant’s credibility at trial and may complicate how his defense presents him as a witness, said Orlando-area attorney Randy McClean, a former prosecutor.
Witness accounts of the rainy night Martin was shot are spotty. There is no video of the fight, though photos prosecutors have released showed Zimmerman with wounds to his face and the back of his head. His recollection of what occurred is key.
“The other key witness, unfortunately is deceased,’’ McClean said. “Basically, Zimmerman is going to be asking the jury to believe his version of the facts. . . . As the case stands now, his credibility is absolutely critical to the case.’’
Police in Sanford did not immediately arrest Zimmerman, citing Florida’s “stand your ground’’ law that gives wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat in a fight if people believe they are in danger of being killed or seriously injured.
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, said his clients have always said Zimmerman should remain in jail until trial, which O’Mara said he believed would not be until next year.
Crump was asked whether he thought that if Zimmerman would be willing to lie about his finances he would be willing to lie about what happened the night Martin was killed.
“We fully expect that the special prosecutor will make George Zimmerman’s credibility be front and center in this entire case,’’ Crump said. “And whatever dishonesty that comes forth by George Zimmerman that they can prove, you can best believe it will become the issue of this case.’’
Prosecutors also said that although Zimmerman surrendered a passport at the bond hearing, he had a second one he did not report. He and his wife spoke about keeping the passport in a safety deposit box during jailhouse conversations.
However, Judge Lester dismissed that concern as the equivalent of someone who has lost a driver’s license, applies for a new one, and then finds the old one.
Also at Friday’s hearing, De la Rionda and O’Mara asked the judge to stop the public release of witness names and statements made by Zimmerman to police officers. Those documents normally are part of the public record under Florida law.
Lester said he would order the release of the documents once he has reviewed them and has redacted items that are not subject to disclosure under the state’s public records law.