Prosecutors handling the second-degree murder case against George Zimmerman released an explosive audiotape on Monday, in which a woman claimed to investigators that Zimmerman had sexually molested her for a decade, starting when the two were children.
The woman, whom prosecutors identified only as Witness 9, is a cousin of Zimmerman’s, according to his attorneys.
There is no indication that the woman’s allegations, the most recent of which involve interactions approximately 10 years ago, have anything to do with the murder charge against Zimmerman.
And legal experts expressed concern that the new allegations, which were released after media outlets requested the release of the recordings, could threaten Zimmerman’s chances for a fair trial.
"It's hard to see how any allegations of sexual misconduct 10 years previous has any relevance to charges that have nothing to do with sexual misconduct,” Bob Dekle, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, told The Daily Beast.
“That's the kind of stuff that is quite likely to prejudice a jury pool."
Zimmerman is charged with murdering Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was returning home through Zimmerman’s housing complex outside Orlando on Feb. 26 when Zimmerman confronted him. The two fought and Zimmerman shot Martin once in the chest, killing him. Police initially released Zimmerman when he claimed self-defense, but after weeks of national outcry over the incident, Zimmerman was arrested.
On the audiotape, which was recorded by investigators from the state’s attorney’s office on March 20, less than one month after the shooting, Witness 9 told investigators that Zimmerman first molested her 20 years ago, when she was 6 years old and he was about 8.
She said when the two were watching television in a room with other people Zimmerman “would reach under the blankets and try to do things and I would try to push him off but he was bigger and stronger and older.”
Her voice cracks as she speaks to police detectives. “He would put his hands under my pants, under my underwear and … and basically just finger me, I guess.”
A police investigator then asked her if Zimmerman, at 8 years old, had put his finger inside her. “Yes,” she answered.
She told investigators that some of the incidents occurred while she and her sister were living at Zimmerman’s home for a brief period, and at other times when her family visited the Zimmermans.
In another case, when she was a child, she said, Zimmerman “told me he had to have surgery on his penis,” and then showed his penis to her.
On another occasion, she said, Zimmerman fondled her behind some curtains when she was about 8. “He would put his hands under my shirt and just rub and grab my chest, and put his hands down my pants again,” she said. “And more of the, the same stuff … with his fingers.”
The most recent incident, the woman told investigators, took place when she was 16 and Zimmerman was about 18. He began giving her a massage, she said, and when he began kissing her, she fled.
Witness 9 told investigators she was speaking out because she wasn’t scared of Zimmerman. “Georgie always made himself look so good,” she said on the recording. “The fact that he made everyone love him and he made everyone laugh and be so happy around him … I knew that if I said anything he would just deny it.”
The audiotape’s release is as concerning as its content, say some legal experts, precisely because it is so inflammatory.
“I think the only effect is to malign his character. It’s irrelevant to this case,” said Tamara Lave, who teaches criminal law at the University of Miami.
“The only possible relevance,” she added, “is that it is being used to show that he's an aggressor. The problem is that it's really old and it's unbelievably inflammatory conduct. I don’t think a good judge would let it in.”
Normally, evidence is admitted only at trial if a judge deems it relevant to a material issue in the case. That determination is generally made during litigation, but under Florida’s expansive open-records laws, discovery must be released to the public upon request, unless a judge rules that it would represent “a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice.”
"If it does not meet any of the confidentiality criteria, legally, under the public-records law it has to be disclosed,” Dekle said.
The dispute over the woman’s statement began last month, when Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, fought the judge’s order that it be released to the public.
In a motion filed on June 29, prosecutors agreed that the statement should not be released, but argued that the audiotape “may be extremely relevant” to the murder charge against Zimmerman.
Asked for clarification, Jackelyn Barnard, a spokeswoman for special prosecutor Angela Corey’s office, declined to discuss the tape. “We are following the judge’s order,” she told The Daily Beast.
Last Friday, Judge Kenneth Lester of Seminole County Circuit Court denied the requests for withholding the discovery and ordered the release of both the audiotapes and 145 calls Zimmerman made from jail. “Its disclosure may have some small impact,” Lester wrote, “but does not rise to the level of ‘a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice.’”
But Dekle said that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. "If the abstract question is, should it be disclosed or disseminated?, the answer is no.
But the concrete question is, once it’s been disclosed in discovery, can you prevent its release? The answer is no."
In a separate motion last Friday, Zimmerman's lawyers filed a motion to disqualify Judge Lester from hearing the case, citing what they called "gratuitous, disparaging remarks about Mr. Zimmerman's character." In a ruling following revelations that Zimmerman and his wife, Shellie, had lied to the court about their financial status, Lester wrote that Zimmerman "flouted the system," and "tried to manipulate the system" by withholding the information. In last week’s motion Zimmerman’s attorneys wrote that he had a "reasonable fear that this Court is biased against him."
Both Lave and Dekle told The Daily Beast the motion is not far-fetched and will have to be taken seriously.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Zimmerman’s lawyers said they had asked the judge to postpone releasing the new discovery material pending their disqualification motion. “This is an appropriate request as, should the motion for disqualification be granted, reconsideration of recent rulings by the judge is appropriate. However, the prosecution elected to make the public disclosure anyway,” the statement said.
“Now that this statement is part of the public record, the defense will vigorously defend Mr. Zimmerman against the allegations. In the next several weeks, there will be reciprocal discovery filed” regarding the witness’s allegations, the statement said.