The arrest of neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the killing of an unarmed teenager in Sanford, Fla., has prompted widespread debate about the appropriateness of the second-degree-murder charge against him and his chances of conviction, a discussion in which University of Miami law professors are playing a significant role.
In a Wall Street Journal article, law professor Mary Anne Franks explained that under Florida law, someone can be charged with second-degree murder if the killing was not premeditated and was carried out in connection with a variety of crimes, ranging from arson to aggravated stalking. It involves "deliberately killing someone and doing it in a way that's particularly offensive to morality," Professor Franks said. The charge – the strongest short of first-degree murder, which involves premeditation – carries a possible sentence of life in prison.
Professor Franks told the Journal that prosecutors often aim for the strongest charge they think they can get, knowing that sometimes juries will settle on lesser charges. She told WTSP Channel 10 in Tampa that Zimmerman could have faced charges of involuntary manslaughter or voluntary manslaughter, both of which could carry up to 15 years in prison.
Zimmerman's revolving cast of lawyers invoked Florida's Stand Your Ground law to claim that he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Trayvon Martin in February. News reports assert that Zimmerman, who was booked into a correctional facility on Wednesday night, plans to enter a not guilty plea. In the view of Miami Law Professor Donald Jones, Zimmerman's claim of self-defense is "contrived," and a "classic instance of someone who created the conditions of his own defense."
"For Zimmerman to say Trayvon attacked him is like a burglar who breaks into a house and cries foul when the homeowner shoots him to protect himself," Professor Jones wrote in an Opinion piece in The Miami Herald. "Zimmerman's family and friends put out the story that Trayvon broke his nose, though police video suggests otherwise. But if Trayvon found the courage to stand up to his assailant and punch him in the nose, the Stand Your Ground law is on Trayvon's side. To be on the right side of that law you have to be somewhere you have a right to be. It was Trayvon, not Zimmerman, who could claim that right."
The case, already problematic for prosecutors in light of the Stand Your Ground law, could be further complicated by the statements of two attorneys who withdrew from Zimmerman's defense a few days ago. Law professors who specialize in legal ethics said that the Orlando criminal defense lawyers may have violated Florida's rules governing lawyers' professional conduct, according to a column by Alison Frankel on the Thomson Reuters news wire.
Under Florida's representation rules, the attorneys, Hal Uhrig and Craig Sonner, were within their rights to withdraw from representing Zimmerman. A lawyer may withdraw, according to the attorney-client relationship provisions, if a "client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant, imprudent, or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement." During a press conference, Uhrig and Sonner disclosed that Zimmerman had taken the unusual step of personally reaching out to Angela Corey, the special prosecutor who has been appointed to handle the Feb. 26 killing of the 17-year-old Martin. The Thomson Reuters article said Uhrig also addressed his client's seemingly erratic behavior, describing Zimmerman as "emotionally crippled by the virtue of the pressure of this case."
Such disclosures arguably could jeopardize Zimmerman's defense and his shot at a fair trial, according to Miami Law Professor Anthony V. Alfieri. Under Florida's rules of profession conduct, Professor Alfieri said, a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client only if the withdrawal can be "accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client."
"By publicly calling into question his mental state you are, I think, seriously jeopardizing a fair trial guarantee because you are creating the substantial possibility of prejudice," Alfieri said.
A statement about the case by Sean Hannity of Fox News has also generated controversy. Hannity, who on his show has repeatedly defended Zimmerman's actions, told his audience last week that he had been "contacted by an individual that we in fact believe was George Zimmerman." Hannity went on: "He reached out to me, we spoke on the phone about his case, and I agreed not to report on the contents of that conversation."
Tamara Rice Lave, a professor of criminal law at the University of Miami who practiced as a public defender for 10 years, told ThinkProgress that Hannity could be compelled to testify about his conversation with George Zimmerman. Professor Lave said it's a "no brainer."
Under Florida Law, there is a "qualified privilege" for journalists that protects their conversations with sources. But Professor Lave said that, in her opinion, the qualified privilege could "easily" be overcome under Florida law because Zimmerman's statements about the incident are "relevant and material to unresolved issues." Further, there are no "alternative sources" for his statements to Hannity and there is a compelling interest for disclosure in a potential manslaughter case.