Trayvon Martin

Mark O’Mara: George Zimmerman’s New Lawyer

Orlando-based Mark O’Mara has stepped into a blinding public spotlight as the new lead defense attorney for George Zimmerman, now charged with murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Diane Dimond on the veteran criminal defense attorney.

04.12.12 11:34 AM ET

Mark O’Mara has practiced law in Florida for nearly 30 years, and at first
blush it seems he’s made few, if any, enemies along the way. He’s Catholic-educated, a graduate of the Florida State University Law School, and currently presides as president of the Seminole County Bar Association. He loves dogs, and local court watchers call him variations of “straightforward, professional, solid, and a real grownup.”

At first glance the tall, lanky lawyer seems to channel To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch in his slow, measured and polite way of speaking. But this sandy-haired lawyer has many layers to his personality.

Attorney Mark Nejame, another Orlando legal hotshot and a past courtroom
adversary of O’Mara’s, had nothing but praise for the man who now stands as
the lead lawyer for America’s most notorious murder suspect, George Zimmerman. After quietly turning himself in to police, Zimmerman was officially charged with the max—second-degree murder—in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, of Sanford, Florida.

“O’Mara is an excellent lawyer, very smart, very measured. very ethical,” Nejame said. “He knows how to deal with the media but not be a media hog.” That can only be a plus in a state where there always seems to be a stream of headline-grabbing court cases in the news.

Indeed, television viewers in Florida are already familiar with O’Mara as
part of the WKMG, Channel 6 news team of legal commentators. Ironically,
O’Mara recently was asked to comment on the Martin/Zimmerman shooting case because he has tried other so-called, Stand Your Ground cases in the past.

Asked by a WKMG reporter (before he signed on to represent Zimmerman) if the controversial law didn’t give Floridians a license to kill, O’Mara conceded in some cases it does. “If you can present evidence, or at least your own testimony, that (you were) in fear that he was going to commit great bodily injury or death, that is what kicks in the statutory protection that you’re allowed to respond with deadly force,” he said, adding, “(Some) people call it the ‘License to Murder’ statute because it doesn’t require actions to avoid the confrontation.”

There have been murmurs that the state may offer Zimmerman a plea agreement of some sort. A shorter sentence than the 25-to-life attached to second-degree murder, in exchange for an admission of guilt. That way, the prosecutor could avoid a messy public confrontation over the state’s controversial self-defense laws, including the oft-mentioned Stand Your Ground law which was  passed in 2005 to give property owners peace of mind during a spate of post-hurricane looting. If the Zimmerman case does go to trial it most certainly will be televised nationwide, and O’Mara will embrace the Stand Your Ground law  as the centerpiece of his defense. He will argue that George Zimmerman felt in fear for his life and under the law had every right to defend himself.

O’Mara’s expertise in working the media was honed last year when he appeared as a commentator during the infamous Casey Anthony murder case in which a young mother was acquitted of murder in the death of her 3-year-old daughter.  (In fact O’Mara counts as one of his good friends, Jeff Ashton, the assistant prosecutor in the Anthony trial.) During his almost daily television exposure, O’Mara displayed a calm and intellectual demeanor that helped explain the sometimes convoluted developments in that case. Local reporters seem to genuinely admire and respect the seasoned attorney.

O’Mara also has seen, first hand, how Florida’s most liberal sunshine laws
allowed the public nearly unfettered access to massive amounts of police and
prosecutor’s evidence and how that can alter the course of both public
opinion and the actual trial. In the Anthony case, for example, the media
was allowed to broadcast all the videotapes taken of Casey Anthony during
prison meetings with her parents before the trial began. Some of the tapes
were quite revealing about the young woman’s volatile personality. During
jury selection all potential jurors were asked whether televised
pre-trial coverage had caused them to make up their mind about the
defendant’s guilt. Many of those questioned admitted they had already
decided Anthony was guilty and were dismissed.

Moving forward, O’Mara is sure to counsel George Zimmerman to be careful of
what he does and says to outsiders so as not to inadvertently add to the
pool of information Florida officials might discover and be compelled to
release to the media.

After the state’s Special Prosecutor Angela Corey and her staff staged a
lengthy news conference to announce the second-degree murder charge
against Zimmerman, cable TV networks switched to another nearby venue to
carry live coverage of Trayvon Martin’s parents speaking to the media with
the Rev. Al Sharpton at their side. Later, O’Mara casually stepped out
of his cozy East Concord Street office, alone, and had a low-key chat
with reporters as the sun set behind him.

His famous client will plead not guilty, O’Mara said. And, yes, Zimmerman is frightened about his future. But O’Mara plans to ask the court to release Zimmerman from jail despite the very real threats to his safety on the outside. (The New Black Panther Party put a $10,000 bounty on his head.) “I want him out because I need him to help in the defense. I need free access to him,” O’Mara explained. Asked about the defendant’s first two attorneys who very publicly resigned from representing Zimmerman and seemed to question his mental state, O’Mara said simply, “He was rational with me. We are communicating very well. He understands how he can best let me be a good lawyer for him.”

Mark O’Mara’s web site carries a simple top headline: “Helping good people
through difficult times.” The message below that declares that he is,
“sensitive to the needs of his clients. When you choose him to represent
you, he will be there for you through thick and thin.”

Sounds like just what George Zimmerman needs.