U.S. News

Florida judge steps down from George Zimmerman trial

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida judge removed herself as expected on Wednesday from presiding over the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

George Zimmerman (L) stands with his attorney Mark O'Mara (R) as he makes his first appearance on second degree murder charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in courtroom J2 at the Seminole County Correctional Facility in Sanford, April 12, 2012. REUTERS/Gary W. Green/Pool

Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. will take over the racially charged case, which captured national attention and prompted demonstrations across the United States when Zimmerman remained free and without charge for more than six weeks.

A court news release announced the change, which had been anticipated since the previously assigned judge, Jessica Recksiedler, disclosed a potential conflict of interest last week in that her husband’s law partner previously had been contacted by Zimmerman seeking representation.

Recksiedler asked Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, to file a motion quickly if he wanted her off the case, which he did on Monday.

Recksiedler announced her recusal in a three-page order that said O’Mara’s two undisclosed legal arguments to remove her were individually insufficient but together formed a compelling case.

Lester, 58, was first elected to the Seminole County Circuit Court bench in 1996 and ran unopposed for re-election in 2002 and 2008, a court spokeswoman said.

He could become among the better-known local judges in the United States if the intense media coverage of the case persists and the case goes to trial. Florida law generally permits television cameras in the courthouse, raising the possibility of serial coverage on cable news.

In one of his more prominent jury trials, in 2003, Lester sentenced Michael Reynolds to two death sentences and two life sentences for the 1998 murders of a couple and their 11-year-old daughter in Geneva, Florida, according to Florida’s commission on capital cases website.

Lester followed the jury’s 12-0 recommendation for the death penalty. Reynolds remains on Florida’s death row.

A bond hearing was set for Zimmerman on Friday at 9.a.m. EDT. Court spokeswoman Michelle Kennedy confirmed it would take place with Lester presiding.

Besides whether to set bail, among the first issues Lester must decide is whether to unseal all court records filed in Zimmerman’s case.

At O’Mara’s request and with the consent of the prosecution, a different judge at Zimmerman’s initial appearance agreed to seal the records, noting the trial judge would make the final decision whether the records should be made public.

Zimmerman, the son of a white father and Peruvian mother, shot and killed Martin, who was black, on February 26 following a confrontation in a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.

Police released Zimmerman, saying they found no probable cause to arrest him based on his account of self-defense.

That led to a wave of protests and intense media scrutiny - public pressure that forced the Sanford police chief and the regularly assigned prosecutor to step aside.

Governor Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor, Angela Corey, who charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder last week.

Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Peter Cooney