ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida judge will decide on Friday whether to release George Zimmerman on bail before his trial for second-degree murder in the killing of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. took over the racially charged case on Wednesday after another judge stepped aside due to a potential conflict of interest.
He will preside over a previously scheduled pre-trial detention hearing beginning at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT), as he takes up a case that has riveted the United States. It also triggered widespread street protests because Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, remained free and was not charged for more than six weeks after he shot and killed Martin, who was black and unarmed.
Zimmerman was finally jailed last week.
Court officials in Sanford, Florida, the seat of Seminole County where Martin was gunned down on February 26, have provided few details about Friday’s bond hearing.
But they said the hearing would include testimony from Zimmerman’s family, after the defense filed an unopposed motion to allow them to speak on his behalf by phone.
Jeff Weiner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who practices in Miami, said the charge of second-degree murder meant that Zimmerman was not necessarily entitled to be released on bail.
But if Angela Corey, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, wants to oppose his release on bond she will have to preview at least some of the evidence the state has against Zimmerman in proceedings known in Florida as an Arthur hearing, Weiner said.
“The state has the burden of proof to go forward and convince the judge that proof of guilt is evident and that the presumption of guilt is great ... That’s what this hearing is about,” Weiner said.
To accomplish that, he added, Corey will have to lay out the state’s case far more vigorously than she did in a probable cause affidavit made public when Zimmerman made his first appearance in court on April 12.
“Tomorrow it will become much clearer whether she was justified in charging second-degree murder or not ... Proof evident, presumption of guilt, those are the keys,” Weiner said.
To avoid tipping her hand in the case, Corey may simply decide not to oppose Zimmerman’s release on bond. That would be highly unusual, however.
“I frankly in 39 years as a defense lawyer have never seen that happen,” Weiner said.
Since the maximum sentence for second-degree murder is life in prison, Charles Rose, a professor at Florida’s Stetson University College of Law, said “flight risk” was one fundamental issue Judge Lester was sure to take into consideration in any ruling on bond.
“There’s no indication Mr. Zimmerman’s a flight risk. Arguably, he’s not the type of person you need to hold over in a non-bondable fashion,” Rose said.
But he added that prosecutors might argue against bond by citing concerns over Zimmerman’s safety, and a lack resources to put him under round the clock security.
“The thing that concerns me about granting him bail ... has everything to do with how granting bail and putting him out on bond might be perceived in the community and might cause unrest or action against Mr. Zimmerman if his location is known,” said Rose.
He did not elaborate, but friends and family of Zimmerman have reported numerous death threats against him.
Martin was shot and killed in a gated community in Sanford following a confrontation that began, according to the probable cause affidavit, after he was “profiled” by Zimmerman as a criminal.
Police released Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch volunteer at the time of the shooting, after saying they found no probable cause to arrest him based on his account of self-defense.
That ignited the subsequent wave of protests and intense media scrutiny -- public pressure that Sanford police chief and the regularly assigned prosecutor to step aside.
Writing and additional reporting By Tom Brown; Editing by Philip Barbara