SEMINOLE COUNTY, FLORIDA – A new judge was tapped Thursday to preside over the case of George Zimmerman after the original judge was forced to step down.
Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester will be replaced by Judge Debra Nelson, who was appointed to the bench in 1999.
The move came one day after a Florida appeals court granted Zimmerman’s request for a new judge, saying the original judge’s remarks put Zimmerman in reasonable fear of an unfair trial.
Zimmerman, 28, is charged with second-degree murder in the February 26 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.
His attorneys wanted Lester removed, saying language he used in a bail order disparaged their client’s character and held over his head the threat of future criminal proceedings.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed, and Lester was forced to disqualify himself.
Lester revoked Zimmerman’s original $150,000 bond after learning Zimmerman and his wife, Shellie, failed to disclose more than $100,000 in donations from the public.
The judge then set a new bail of $1 million in July, and it was the language in that bail order that Zimmerman and his lawyers took issue with.
The court agreed with Zimmerman’s attorneys that Lester “made gratuitous, disparaging remarks about Mr. Zimmerman’s character; advocated for Mr. Zimmerman to be prosecuted for additional crimes; offered a personal opinion about the evidence for the prosecution; continued to hold over Mr. Zimmerman’s head the threat of future contempt proceedings, and ultimately set a bond at $1,000,000.”
The appeals court also agreed that Lester’s remarks “created reasonable fear in Mr. Zimmerman that the court is biased against him, and, as a result of this prejudice cannot receive a fair and impartial trial or hearing by the trial court.”
In his July bail order, Lester wrote that “under any defnition, the defendant has flouted the system” and “tried to manipulate the system when he has been presented the opportunity to do so.”
Lester also wrote that it was his “personal opinion” that Zimmerman intentionally gave false or misleading information in his bail application — which is a felony — and he suggested the possibility of future contempt proceedings.
“Holding this over Mr. Zimmerman creates a horrible chilling effect on this case, on the defense presentation, and cements Mr. Zimmerman’s fear that he will not get a fair trial from the trial court,” the appeals court wrote.
Zimmerman is free after posting the $1 million bond.
The former neighborhood watch captain has pleaded not guilty to the charges and said he shot the 17-year-old Martin in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Martin, who was unarmed, was walking through a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, to his father’s girlfriend’s house when he was killed.