Fla. judge denies gag order in Zimmerman case

Lilly Chapa | Secret Courts | News | October 31, 2012

A Florida judge on Monday denied a proposed gag order that would muzzle all attorneys and law enforcement officers involved in the prosecution of George Zimmerman.

More than a dozen news media organizations, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY, opposed the motion, which was filed by lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda before a hearing two weeks ago. Attorney Scott Ponce, who filed the motion to intervene on behalf of the media coalition, argued in a Friday hearing that under the Constitution, a gag order must only be imposed as a last alternative to ensuring a fair trial.

“What evidence could you possibly point to that it’s going to be impossible to seat an impartial jury so that you have to gag attorneys?” Ponce asked prosecutors during the two-and-a-half hour hearing.

Nelson wrote in a two-page order that the media was right when it argued that the state failed to demonstrate prejudice.

“This court does not find that a gag order is necessary at this time to guarantee a fair trial,” Nelson wrote. The judge said that if needed, she would move the trial to another county, summon a larger than normal jury pool and would issue stern instructions to jurors about deciding the case based only on evidence presented in court.

De la Rionda argued Friday that if the defense continues speaking publicly about the case, it will be impossible to find impartial jurors.

“The gist of my motion is not directed to the media but the defense council,” de la Rionda said.

The prosecution said that it commends the defense’s “groundbreaking” use of websites and social media to communicate with the public but is concerned that potential jurors will be influenced by biased comments on the sites.

“The defense council engages and encourages discussions by John Q. Citizen,” de la Rionda said. “So what’s going to happen in jury selection? We’ll have to spend two or three weeks asking jurors what websites they go to.”

This is the second time a judge denied the prosecution’s request for a gag order. Florida Judge Kenneth Lester, who previously presided over the case, denied de la Rionda’s motion in April.

The controversial case involves the prosecution of Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the February shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, claims he shot the teenager in self-defense, and the racially charged case has garnered national attention. Zimmerman’s hearing will be held in June.