NEW: Mark O'Mara describes his client, George Zimmerman, as "frightened"
NEW: The lawyer says he's confident the judge will be removed from the case
NEW: The CNN analyst tied to the motion says "the process" will resolve the issue
Media outlets are asking that documents in the case be unsealed
George Zimmerman’s defense team formally requested Monday that the Florida judge assigned to their client’s case be removed after she revealed her husband works with a CNN legal analyst.
Mark O’Mara’s office filed paperwork Monday asking that Seminole Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler not preside over second-degree murder proceedings involving Zimmerman, according to Seminole County Court spokeswoman Michelle Kennedy.
The motion to “disqualify” the trial judge “will be ruled on in the appropriate manner,” Kennedy said Monday.
Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, a killing he has said was in self-defense. Since then, the case has stirred civil rights activists nationwide and drawn intense publicity.
Recksiedler is assigned to the Zimmerman case. But on Friday, she said she would entertain motions to disqualify her from the trial because her husband is a law partner of Mark NeJame, an attorney whom Zimmerman approached about representing him and has since widely commented on the case in the media. NeJame is now a CNN contributor, providing analysis on this case.
NeJame told CNN that Zimmerman “contacted my office, attempting to reach me, and wanted to hire me to represent him” on March 13. One of his law partners relayed that request to NeJame, who declined. He explained later that he knew how taking on “big national cases (can) take a lot out of you” and wanted to have more time to spend with his children.
“I decided simply not to,” the Orlando lawyer said.
A friend of Zimmerman’s later repeated the request in a direct conversation with NeJame early last week, just as lawyers Hal Uhrig and Craig Sonner said they’d no longer represent Zimmerman. By then, NeJame noted he’d been hired by CNN to serve as an analyst.
NeJame again said he could not represent Zimmerman and offered the names of five lawyers – topped by O’Mara – who might be considered instead.
“They said Mark is the one we want, I put them together, and they took it from there,” said NeJame.
O’Mara had indicated on Friday that the defense might request a new judge, when he said the association between NeJame and the Recksiedlers might become “more and more problematic” given the scrutiny the case is receiving.
He told CNN on Monday night that he was confident the request to pull Recksiedler off the case would succeed.
“If it is reasonably well-founded and sworn to, it’ll be granted,” O’Mara said.
Insisting that there had been “full transparency,” NeJame said Monday that he understood why Zimmerman’s defense team asked for the judge’s removal – because of his involvement in the case and his professional relationship with her husband – and was content that the matter is now in the legal system’s control.
“Everybody just needs to do the right thing, file it and let the process (be resolved) properly,” NeJame said.
Meanwhile, news media organizations, including CNN, petitioned Recksiedler on Monday to reverse an order sealing court records in Zimmerman’s prosecution.
Prosecutors did not object when Zimmerman’s attorneys asked Recksiedler to seal records last week. The judge ordered the court filings and other records sealed “without giving the public and press an opportunity to oppose closure,” the media said in its motion.
Florida law requires a judge to consider whether the records closure is needed to “prevent a serious and imminent threat” to justice, the media members argued.
The court must also find that there is no alternative to sealing the records that would provide a fair trial and that the action would not be “broader than necessary to accomplish this purpose,” they said.
Zimmerman’s attorneys did not address those issues or present any evidence, the motion said.
“In case after case in Florida, courts – including the United States Supreme Court – have held that prominence and publicity are not synonymous with prejudice and impartiality, and have cautioned against assuming that all potential jurors follow the news and retain what they read and watch,” the media filing says.
Jurors who can’t set aside their biases created by exposure to pretrial publicity can be screened out during jury selection, the media motion argued.
In addition to CNN, several broadcasting and newspaper companies – including the publishers of USA Today, the Miami Herald and The New York Times – are part of the effort to unseal the documents.
O’Mara said Monday that he favors keeping documents sealed in this case in large part because of concerns that witnesses might be contacted and in danger if certain information is released.
“(Our) overall philosophy (is) to keep the information flow concentrated within the court system,” he told CNN. “It’s much better handled there.”
As to his client, O’Mara said he speaks “at least a couple times a day” with Zimmerman, whom he described as doing well physically but “frightened.”
Zimmerman is scheduled to return to court Friday for a bail hearing.
O’Mara says that he hopes his client will be eligible for bond after that hearing and eventually be allowed to go free until the trial. If he does get out, though, the lawyer said there are legitimate fears about Zimmerman’s safety.
“There have been a lot of emotions that have come forward in this case, and some of those emotions have shown themselves in bad ways,” O’Mara said.