Friday, November 2, 2012

Mark O'Mara: Race Is Not The Issue

    Mark O'Mara, the attorney for George Zimmerman, talked to me for a story on media coverage of the Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin story.
We spoke Wednesday at his offices in downtown Orlando. We talked about the case, the coverage and his client, who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of  Martin.
O'Mara became familiar to many in Central Florida for his analysis of the Casey Anthony case for WKMG-Channel 6. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

(click link to read the original article)

Q. What's your general impression so far of the media coverage of your client?
A. "It's the second Casey Anthony case. It it getting an enormous amount of coverage everywhere. Literally, I get calls from [the] BBC and other foreign stations and all the national media here and all the local. It is unfathomable to me how much coverage it was getting the first hour or the first 20 minutes that I was involved in the case. We literally had a crescent of 85, 90 reporters and 30 cameras here.

"Though that has stopped, the phone calls really haven't. I got 2,000 emails from different media outlets in the first three days I was involved in the case. Obviously, it's calmed down over time. It ebbs and flows a little bit when some discovery comes out. The quantity has been outstanding.
"The quality of coverage, I think it's good, and everyone wants to have something to say about it. My concern about the coverage, initially, was the first few couple of weeks set the stage for how this case was presented. That has been very frustrating to me. It was frustrating to me before I was involved in the case. I didn't like the way it was being handled, even though I wasn't involved in it."
Q. Handled by whom?
 A. "I think the way the media looked at this case. They took a tragic event, made some initial determinations and then ran with those determinations. I know it sounds like I'm arguing on behalf of my client. But the media were the first to pick up on a 5-year-old, 275-pound George Zimmerman, looking like it was a mug shot, and juxtaposed that to a 12-year-old picture of Trayvon Martin. And suggested that was the battle that ensued that night. The facts came out fairly quickly that that wasn't true. If I had a frustration, it was that media seemed to be holding on to the sensationalist view of the facts of the case rather than a realistic view."
Q. What do you mean by the second Casey Anthony case?
A. "In Central Florida, we seemed to have gotten them back to back. The frenzy that was Casey Anthony, the national media that sort of descended upon Florida, realized that Florida has very open discovery, we have open records and we have cameras in the courtroom. That perfect storm of media frenzy that can be built around a criminal case, they learned those lessons with Casey Anthony. As soon as George Zimmerman's case happened they almost automatically said, 'Move this model from Casey Anthony over to George Zimmerman.' That's why I mention it as the second Casey Anthony. Certainly there were some outside media personalities who got involved and saw an opportunity that was not necessarily directly related to the case.
"In terms of the George Zimmerman case, I think a lot of people ran with the idea this was a racially motivated case, when there was no support to it. Rev. [Al] Sharpton came down, Rev. [Jesse] Jackson came down. Ben Crump. They got involved and seemingly took an event, and I think what they did, from talking to Ben Crump, was they perceived that a social injustice was happening. That social justice was that because it was a young black male who was the victim of a violent event that it wasn't that big a deal and that Sanford police department thought that and so did the rest of everybody.
"That seemed to be their perspective, and that this was an opportunity to have a conversation about the way young black males are poorly treated in the criminal-justice system. As I said to Ben Crump, 'I would be on the same side of the podium in having that conversation as Ben or Rev. Sharpton, because my life has been committed to 30 years' worth of criminal-defense practice.' If you look at my criminal-defense practice, a certain percentage of that is handling young black males in the criminal-justice system and having to fight the way they are treated. I well know those arguments and those concerns.
"The problem I have with this case is, early on, it became apparent to me and to those who looked at it, that Sanford PD did not do a poor job in the investigation of the case. I've seen poor jobs. I've seen good jobs. When I look impersonally at the way this case was handled by the Sanford Police Department, I see they brought him into custody, they questioned him, they had several questioning sessions with him. Some of them were friendly. Some of them were a little more confrontational. Some were very confrontational. Looking at the investigation itself, you have all of that.
"You have at least two canvassing of the area. They did the voice-stress analysis, which is something they don't always do. They did a re-creation of the scene by having the cops go back out there with George Zimmerman and say what happened.
"I don't think you'll see a lot of cases where they do that. Now part of that is you don't often have a willing accused who will say, 'Sure, I'll show you, I'll show you, I'll show you.' But they did that. Again, suggesting more investigation rather than less. They had him do the voice reconstruction, the screeching."
Q. All of this taken together means what?
A. "Sanford Police Department did a pretty decent job in investigating the case. Yet it was suggested at the flash point that they would say, 'It was a young black kid who was shot. Don't worry about it.' I don't think that turned out to true. If you want to have a conversation about the way young black males are treated in the criminal-justice system, let's have it. It's just this isn't the case where a young black male was inappropriately treated. What they're saying it, 'Let's have a conversation.' Go right ahead. But don't make it a media frenzy about a case that doesn't involve that."
Q. Trayvon's family and the family attorneys repeated a message like a mantra: that Trayvon was armed only with Skittles and iced tea. Does George Zimmerman have a mantra?
A. "Don't forget that the Martin family and the Crump camp have a publicity team working with them. So they crafted and created their presentation. We don't have that same luxury. That's the way they have created the case, and they have been going around the country repeating what you call a mantra. Trayvon was 17 and he was unarmed and he only had Skittles. OK, that's relevant.
"But the reality is this case is supposed to be judged upon George’s belief, whether it was reasonable, that he was in fear of great bodily injury at Trayvon's hands. To that, we look at some of the evidence. That's what we need to focus on. To turn George into something he's not for an ulterior motive is frustrating."
Q. Benjamin Crump says he has to present his civil-rights cases in the court of public opinion so they'll be heard in the court of law. What do you say?
A. "He's entitled to his opinion. I think he has certain bounds on how he presents himself as a lawyer that we are bound by as lawyers. He may have a different interpretation of what those boundaries are. It's not up to me decide. If he believes that he wants to take on as a crusade the plight of the way young black males are treated in the criminal-justice system, call me and I will help you. Because I know it well. I've actually done a lot more criminal-defense work than Ben Crump. I do know what I'm speaking of. To relate it to the George Zimmerman case, when it doesn't seem as though there's a basis for that relation, is frustrating."
Q. In the court of public opinion, have you been playing catch-up?
A. "I do understand the constraints of our Bar rules regarding how we present ourselves in the court of public opinion. There is an extraordinary amount that I could do or would do under some different set of rules if I wasn't a lawyer and didn't find myself bound by the ethical rules of not trying this case on the courtroom steps but inside the courtroom. There's a lot to be said, an enormous amount to be said in response to that which is said against us.
"They don't consider themselves bound by the same rules that I am. OK. That doesn't mean I'm going to change my perspective on what I'm bound by. I'm trying to look at the case law that I know exists with what I'm allowed to say about a case and stay well within those constraints.
"Are we playing catch-up up? They’re eons ahead of us. They're running around the country just saying whatever they want. Fine. We have our First Amendment.
"The family I'm particularly concerned about, the tragedy they've gone through. But if this is where they're finding their solace, I'm not going to begrudge them for it. I think the professionals who are involved should be held to a different standard than the family. But that's not my call.
"I have my own thoughts as to what happened that night. My thoughts matter less than anybody else's because I'm not even allowed to give my personal opinion. More importantly, I know the evidence presented that night. Regardless of how these two men, call them young men, how their lives intersected, one ended up passed away and one ended up in hiding. He will never have the life he had before that fateful night he was going to Target. And Trayvon will never grow up to be an 18-year-old because of that night.
"And that's tragic for both of them. I think I know how it happened. I think I know what the evidence is going to support as to how it happened. It doesn't mean because there's a tragedy there was a criminal act. There was just a tragedy maybe."
Q. How important is it for a lawyer to be able to talk to the media?
A. "Whatever you take on, you need to know how to do it well. This is a case, where you have to know how to handle all of those facets in a high-profile case, and the media is one of them.
Q. What skills do you need to talk to media and have they changed in recent years?
A. "It's changed a couple of ways. There's an extraordinary amount more media. Ten years ago, 15 years ago, there was the Sentinel, three stations and networks would come down for something big. Most cases wouldn't get a lot of attention. Criminal cases weren't the flash point for media attention that they are now.
"Today, literally, this [the Zimmerman case] is the best example of it, it is internationally known, and it's a fire’s cause that wont go out for another year or so, well after the trial is over. And we can use Casey Anthony as example of that. It's going to stay very huge. In that sense, you have to grow skills along the way to deal with it."
Q. How did the "Hannity" experience go for your client?
A. "George made that decision out of fear and out of need. George thought he might be arrested and never get out. This was after the million-dollar bond. So he thinks he's going back to jail and the defense fund was at low ebb. The security expenses were outrageous because he now ordered to stay in Seminole County.
"The fear was he was going back to jail and he was going to run out of money. The need was he believed that if he had gone on Sean Hannity show, that would be a shot in the arm for the defense fund. Remembering the defense fund only existed, because before my involvement, he had gone on Sean Hannity show. That is where that $200,000 came from. In a six- or eight-day period, that $200,000 came in because Sean Hannity got on his program and said to effect, 'Help George. This is a nice guy who’s being railroaded.' One day $68,000 came in.
"In George’s mind, Sean was in a sense his savior, because when Sean said, 'Please help this guy out,' he got helped out. I think George made the decision to go back on Sean because he thought it would help his defense fund. And that it was going to be necessary, because if he was back in jail, the fear was his wife Shellie would be unprotected by him."
Q. The way things have unfolded, was it a good move to go on the show?
A. "I don’t think it was. Turned out not to be. From a criminal defense attorney's perspective, it's pretty easy to say, you don't do things like that. The luxury that any criminal defendant has is not to give a statement."
Q. Why did Hannity become his savior? What did he see in George?
 A. "That he was being railroaded, that people were turning against him when the facts didn't support it. I wasn't aware of the Sean Hannity interview before I was involved in the case. What Sean Hannity said was, ‘Guys don’t rush to judgment. … How can you accuse him of anything? Wait until there's evidence.' That was sort of his mantra.
"What he was saying, don't rush to judgment. Fast-forward a couple of weeks to when I got involved, being unaware of what Sean Hannity said, my first interview was 'Let's just calm this down. I don’t know what going on yet. And if I don’t know what's going on yet, nobody else does, because I should know more than you. Let's just wait.' It echoed what Sean Hannity said.”
Q. Orlando attorney Mark NeJame told me that Mark O'Mara had a big mess to clean up when he joined the case. What do you say?
A. "That's true from a couple of perspectives. I would have loved to have been in from day one. Obviously, I may not have allowed George to make all of the statements that he made to police. I'm not concerned that he made those statements now, because I think there'll all pretty consistent. But your default position as a criminal defense attorney is don’t talk to the police, at least not until I find out what is going on so I can advise you.
"The two messes I see is the way that this case was handled by those other interests, that have a focused view of the evidence that doesn't seem to be supported by the forensic evidence. And also, unfortunately, the way his previous counsel handled the case while they were in and how they got out of it. It took George Zimmerman and made him look in a bad light."
Q. Those interests are the media?
A. "Yes, the media and people who were ostensibly representing the best interests of the Martin family but doing it in a way that I think was incendiary."
Q. Will the courtroom be far different from the coverage?
A. "There will be a major turn when we get to the courtroom. The only thing I would say to people now, if I could, is while you can enjoy the fluff of the information that's just floating out there that has no necessary basis in fact, at least take the time to do an analysis based on fact. Do both. Take the time to really look at all the evidence. We have the luxury that all that evidence is out there.
"Listen to George's tapes, look at the forensic evidence, the medical records. It was frustrating to me that it was only last week that one eyewitness sketch just came out. Why is it that it's September? And the one eyewitness who really seemed to see the event issues a sketch literally that night or the next day which is particularly relevant. It showed the man in the red shirt on the bottom and the other person on top. We know conclusively that George Zimmerman was in the red jacket. I don't know how people can look at that and say, 'I don't care. I don't need to focus on that.' That’s one of the most significant pieces of evidence. If you're going to have an opinion, consider it all."
Q. It's getting harder for people to change their minds, isn't it?
A. "We're getting cemented in incomplete evidence. If I have a frustration about what I have to deal with in a courtroom, now we have to deal with those potential jurors who have incomplete information. We need to at least sensitize them to how incomplete their information was. The media is causing some of that at least incomplete, if not pointedly wrong presentation, to those potential jurors. I'm frustrated because I've got to deal with the fallout from that. And my client has to deal with the fallout.”
Q. What's next?
A. "The self-defense immunity hearing, months away. That is intentionally what we call a pretrial motion. It's supposed to happen just before the trial. That presentation to the judge had to be as complete as we can make it."
Q. When might it happen?
 A. "Springtime. January, February maybe."
 Q. How is George?
 A. "He is stressed. He's worried. He’s worried about [his wife] Shellie, now that she’s being charged with perjury. He’s worried about himself. He’s worried that he literally cannot go out in public at all, and when he does, he has to be disguised. That he can’t work.
"Whenever I say this, people say well, 'Trayvon’s dead.' I have a very strong sensitivity to what the Martin family is going through. I don't say that because it's politically correct to say that. I've lost family members, and it sucks, particularly when it seems at though it could have been avoided.
"But having said that, if we're going to focus on George is going through, George is living in a prison caused by the fact that people think he's a racist murderer. When nothing supports the conclusion that he's a racist. The FBI tried its hardest to come back with evidence of racism. They came back with nothing. We have the anecdotal stories that George mentored two black children.
"His great-grandfather is black. He’s a non-racist, yet there is a segment of this population who refuse to believe he's not racist because of what they've been fed.
"Is he a murderer? That has yet to be determined. It's questionable as to what happened and why and how."
Q. Is there a point you want to make about the case?
A. "I'm glad I came up with a mantra the first day: 'Wait until till you know the facts of the case.' This case has gotten skewed way off the base of what that I think it should be on because people are not listening to and seeing facts. If you want to dispute facts, that’s OK. But when you go from facts to interpretation and add a healthy dose of prejudice or bias, that makes for a really volatile situation that is not healthy for the court system, not healthy for this case or Sanford or Seminole County or Florida or our country.
"We have so polarized ourselves over this case, that while it may have been a catalyst for a conversation that we need to have, it's not the way it’s working out. We’re not having the conversation. We’re just polarizing the nation. 
"I do think there is a way this situation could be handled to refocus the conversation away from the case and more to a legitimate conversation about how young black males are treated in America. But don't tie it to the results in this case. This case has nothing to do with that."

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