The Cost of Acquittal
On February 26, 2012, while visiting his dad’s girlfriend with his father at the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford, Florida, a 17-year old high school student was involved in a violent confrontation with a neighborhood watch volunteer.
What exactly happened on that rainy night is unclear. What is clear is that the fight ended when the older man fired his 9mm Kel-Tec pistol into the teenager’s chest, killing him in minutes. The shooter was not immediately charged with a crime.
There was general outrage, with people feeling that the lack of a charge was due to the respective races of the killer and his victim –George Zimmerman, the older male, was Hispanic (or “White Hispanic”); the teenager, Trayvon Martin, was black. There were vigils, national protests, and threats of violence, as Mr. Zimmerman became the most hated man in America. It wasn’t until 44 days after the shooting, certainly as a result of public pressure, that Mr. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.
Mr. Zimmerman’s trial began on June 24, 2013. His lawyers argued that Mr. Martin had been on top of their client bashing his head into the sidewalk; Mr. Zimmerman, they said, shot in self-defense, fearing for his life. The prosecution contended that the defendant acted with malice and premeditation, and that Mr. Zimmerman had racially profiled his victim. Following a 14-day trial, on July 13 a six-woman jury found Mr. Zimmerman not guilty.
Demonstrators throughout the country took to the streets (peacefully, despite dire warnings from Bill O’Reilly) to protest the verdict. Many feel that Mr. Zimmerman – literally — got away with murder. Others believe the verdict was correct given the evidence presented – he was overcharged — but are morally uncomfortable with it. All would probably agree that Mr. Zimmerman had caught a lucky break.
The chattering class is dismayed, astonished, and disgusted by his request, but is there precedent to support Mr. O’Mara’s request?
To be clear, Mr. O’Mara is not asking the state to cover the charges Mr. Zimmerman owes his lawyers for their services. That cost would likely run into the millions of dollars due to the number of hours his firm put into the case. Instead he would like the state cover his out of pocket expenses, which include: expert witnesses, travel, depositions, photocopies and the creation of exhibits used at trial.
Florida Statute 939.06(1) states that an acquitted criminal defendant is not liable for costs and shall be paid “any taxable costs” incurred during the course of trial.
Though the Florida legislature didn’t define “taxable costs,” that state’s Supreme Court has. In a 1997 case (which Mr. O’Mara will find to his liking) the court defined “any taxable costs” to include “reasonable expert witness fees and court reporting costs for depositions.” Since then, Florida courts have reimbursed attorneys whose clients were acquitted on numerous occasions, for subpoena costs, travel expenses, court reporter and deposition costs, as well. Reimbursement for investigative costs, however, have continually been denied by the state.
In addition, the statute specifies that to be reimbursed, costs must be “reasonable.”
The star expert witness for Mr. Zimmerman’s defense was Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a forensic pathologist who is also a renowned gunshot wound expert. Mr. Di Maio generally charges $400 per hour for his analysis, but he testified at the Zimmerman trial that he had been paid only $2,400 to date. Surely he put far more time than six hours into this complicated case.
And there was a quite costly expense for the defense: a 3D animation of what the defense contends happened on that rainy night. While the animation was not Pixar quality, it still had to have taken many man-hours and high tech software to recreate the scene.
Even with a few other expert witnesses, court reporter fees for 14 days of trial, and many pages of printing, it is unclear how Mr. O’Mara’s expenses could have reached $300,000. Then again, in, the George Zimmerman Defense fund reported in April that it had already spent $60,000 in preparation for trial.
The biggest challenge for Mr. O’Mara will be that even after a judge accepts an expense bill, the bill must pass the Justice Administrative Commission (JAC) – whose typical reimbursements range from $50 to $100.
Ouch! In comparison, Mr. O’Mara’s bill appears stratospheric.
The JAC has a history of refusing to pay bills. At a news conference, Mr. O’Mara admitted that though he will ask for a reimbursement of $300,000, he expects that the state will end up paying $50,000 or less.
But as Mr. Zimmerman’s trial has already cost the state of Florida over $900,000, an additional bill, on behalf of a man whose own wife has had enough of him, will be hard to swallow for a city trying to balance its budget No matter what you think happened on the night Trayvon Martin was killed, it’s clear that George Zimmerman caught a lucky break. Thanks mostly to the excellent lawyering skills of Mark O’Mara (now a legal analyst for CNN), Mr. Zimmerman is a free man. He would do well to turn over a new leaf and spend much of his time doing meaningful public service, any way he can.
But we can’t fault him for seeking the attorney expenses for his trial; it’s his right. And to a reasonable extent, the request should be granted.