By FRANCES ROBLES
SANFORD, Fla. — With prosecutors saying they will announce a decision in the Trayvon Martin case by Friday, George Zimmerman appears to have struck out on his own.
He launched a website without telling his two attorneys, spoke to a talk show host and put in a call to the special prosecutor investigating him for the Feb. 26 shooting of Martin. After Zimmerman went AWOL from his lawyers for two days, the attorneys held a news conference late Tuesday afternoon and quit.
Hours later, special prosecutor Angela Corey announced she would make an important announcement in the case in the next 72 hours.
“I’d have to count how many text messages I sent saying: ‘Please call me. Please call me collect. Please text me. Please email me. Please, so we can go forward,’ ” one of Zimmerman’s lawyers, Craig Sonner, said about his former client. “After I started getting calls from different people saying that he was giving statements to the media, calling the prosecutor’s office and not calling me, that’s when it started dawning on me that I wasn’t the attorney of record anymore.”
Now, the parents of the Miami Gardens teenager Zimmerman shot say they fear the man their lawyers call the “neighborhood watch loose cannon” will run. For the first time, Sonner and co-counsel Hal Uhrig acknowledged that Zimmerman is “far from Florida,” but still inside the United States.
“He is well hidden,” Sonner said.
They stressed that they never considered Zimmerman a flight risk, because he always cooperated with law enforcement and was easily reachable by phone. Even now, the attorneys say that a man who is poised to flee the country to avoid possible criminal charges would not check in with the prosecutors who appear poised to arrest him.
“We were a bit astounded,” Uhrig said, stressing that he always tells clients not to talk to prosecutors, cops, reporters or anybody else. “Now he is telling people: ‘I don’t have an attorney. Those guys were just my legal advisers.’ I’m not sure what the difference is.”
Sonner said Zimmerman was eager to tell the state attorney his side of the story. “He wanted to give his statement, and I was going to let him,” Sonner said. “But he was supposed to call me. Let me make the call. I hope he has found someone else to represent him.”
Zimmerman went into hiding after Sanford Police declined to arrest him for Martin’s shooting, sparking nationwide outrage.
Martin, 17, a junior at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High School, went for a walk to the store on a rainy Sunday night in Sanford, where he was visiting his father and his father’s girlfriend. Zimmerman called police, saying there was something suspicious about someone who walked too slowly in the rain, seemed high on drugs and appeared to be “looking about.”
About six minutes later, Martin was dead.
The neighborhood watch captain told police that Martin approached him from behind, that the two exchanged harsh words and that the boy allegedly hit him hard enough to break his nose. He said Martin slammed his head on the concrete, forcing Zimmerman to fire once with the semiautomatic handgun he was licensed to carry on a holster on his waist.
But the investigation that followed was so fraught with problems that it was not long before the case caught the attention of civil rights figures such as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Intense pressure from around the country grew until Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor and the Sanford police chief took a leave of absence.
The FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division are investigating the case.
Now that the probe is in the hands of the Jacksonville-based special prosecutor, Marin’s family attorneys believe an arrest is imminent, but they were concerned by the defense lawyers’ decision to withdraw from the case.
“The family is deeply concerned that George Zimmerman could pose a flight risk if he does indeed face charges in the murder of Trayvon Martin,” family spokesman Ryan Julison said in a statement. “All the family has asked for from the very beginning is simple justice. It is their hope that George Zimmerman will face his legal responsibilities if arrested and charged.”
Zimmerman’s former lawyers said things started going wrong when they heard through the media that their client had launched a website called “The Real George Zimmerman.” The site had a PayPal account to process donations, even though the attorneys were working with Zimmerman’s father to start a legal defense fund in the father’s name.
“On Sunday February 26th, I was involved in a life altering event which led me to become the subject of intense media coverage,” Zimmerman wrote on his website. “As a result of the incident and subsequent media coverage, I have been forced to leave my home, my school, my employer, my family and ultimately, my entire life. This website’s sole purpose is to ensure my supporters they are receiving my full attention without any intermediaries.”
Martin’s parents scoffed at the wording, noting that Trayvon suffered not a “life-altering” event, but “a life-ending one,” his father, Tracy Martin, said.
Zimmerman had to leave his home and job, but Martin won’t get to attend prom, graduate from high school or achieve any of his dreams, he said.
Zimmernman’s website features philosophical quotes from Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke and other historical figures.
A link marked “My race” leads to this quotation by Paine: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” From University of Vermont historian James W. Loewen, he posted: “Evidence must be located, not created, and opinions not backed by evidence cannot be given much weight.”
At first, Sonner said he was fine with Zimmerman launching his own website, even with a different fundraising account that went directly to his former client.
“That money is for George,” Sonner said. “It’s not for me, and I don’t want my hands on it.”
But then the attorneys found out Zimmerman had also reached out to Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity. Hannity had recently interviewed Zimmerman’s dad and asked sympathetic questions such as “Is it true George mentored a black teenager?”
Late Tuesday morning, Zimmerman called the office of special prosecutor Corey, the state attorney for Duval, Nassau and Clay counties. Her office refused his call, because prosecutors are not allowed to speak to suspects without their lawyers present, the lawyers said. The attorneys described a man who appears to be unraveling from the stress, the bounty put on his head by extremists and from more than 40 days hiding in a room.
“George Zimmerman is not doing well emotionally,” Uhrig, one of his two former lawyers, said. “He probably has post traumatic stress disorder, and we understand from other people that he has lost a lot of weight. By him doing this, he may not be in control of what’s going on. We’re concerned.”
Both lawyers made clear that if Zimmerman reaches out to them, they would be happy to take the case back: They believe in his innocence, they said. They stressed that Zimmerman owes them no money, because they had agreed to work for free until charges were filed.
“This is the last thing I want to do,” Sonner said. “I am invested in this case. I put a lot of work into this case.”
Even after publicly resigning, Uhrig proceeded to emphatically represent Zimmerman’s position, insisting that the media, members of Congress, activists and others had made an unfair rush to judgment.
He insisted that Martin “slinked along the back of buildings” in the gated community where the shooting occurred, and ultimately threw the first punch. The crime committed, he said, was battery against Zimmerman.
He mimicked the voice of U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla. – who has advocated for Zimmerman’s arrest – and railed against the people who came to Sanford “pumping their fists.”
“There are people who came to town who are only relevant in situations of racial strife,” Uhrig said. “Their business model is racial division.”