Bernie de la Rionda was fired up on Friday.
The Florida prosecutor chosen to take on George Zimmerman for the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was obviously in no mood to watch his defendant go free for the second time this year.He shouted. He pointed at Zimmerman. He hammered away at witnesses who were called to defend Zimmerman’s credibility.
De la Rionda’s performance this time was far different than when he went before a Seminole County judge in April to ask for Zimmerman to be kept behind bars without bail until his second-degree murder trial next year.
At that previous hearing, the assistant state attorney was caught off guard by several unusual tactics used by Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara. The defense attorney introduced evidence the prosecution didn’t expect and even called Zimmerman to the witness stand to apologize to the family of the young man he killed.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty and claimed he was acting in self defense the night of the Feb. 26 shooting.
“I didn’t know we’d be trying the case,” de la Rionda said at the time.
The result was that Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. granted the defendant in arguably the highest profile case of the year a deal in which his family would have to pay a bondsman just $15,000 to get him out of jail.
The embarrassment for the prosecution was compounded days later when Zimmerman’s attorney revealed on CNN that his client had secretly managed to raise more than $200,000 from donors who supported his claim that he shot the teen in self defense. The money was never disclosed at the hearing and investigators later alleged that Zimmerman’s wife had even lied to de la Rionda when she was briefly asked about the money on the witness stand.
Because of the revelation, the judge eventually ordered Zimmerman back to jail and prosecutors charged Shellie Zimmerman with perjury.
On Friday, de la Rionda had no intention of letting anyone off the hook so easily this time.
“I’m not here today to try the case. We’re not here, either, to have a Stand Your Ground or self-defense hearing,” he said. But instead of stopping there, he went all in. “Frankly, I would welcome it,” he said. “Because then the defendant would have to take the stand.”
De la Rionda hit hard against the first witness, a forensic accountant hired by the defense to examine the bank accounts that Zimmerman and his family allegedly used to hide the $200,000 from authorities.
The accountant, Adam Magill, testified that there was nothing unusual about the fact that the Zimmermans transferred the money in small amounts to other bank accounts before the April 20 hearing and then transferred it back into George Zimmerman’s own account after he was released from jail on bond.
“Ultimately everything was accounted for,” Magill said.
The accountant blamed the unusual amounts of the transfers on PayPal, where Zimmerman set up an account to accept donations online. Magill said the company limits transfers to $10,000, which explained why most of the Zimmermans transactions were $9,990 or $9,999.
But when de la Rionda had his turn, he noted those amounts made sense when the Zimmermans were transferring money out of the PayPal account, but it didn’t explain transfers of $9,999 between other bank accounts that had no transfer limits. He also said the timing of the transfers didn’t make sense.
“Wouldn’t you agree that the transfer of money to separate accounts and then the transfer of money back would be a way of misleading authorities?” de la Rionda asked.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s misleading,” Magill said. “But I would say it would be to make it look like you didn’t have the money.”
It was one of many small victories for de la Rionda throughout the three-hour hearing. Another came when he got a firefighter who treated Zimmerman’s wounds the night of the shooting to admit that a large amount of blood for a cut to the head was pretty normal. Yet another victory came when he got the defendant’s father, Robert Zimmerman, to admit that he couldn’t tell whether it was his son or someone else shouting for help the first time he heard a recording of a 911 call that captured audio of the shooting.
For his part, Zimmerman’s attorney went back to the same tactics that worked so well for him in April. He flooded the judge with evidence about the night of the shooting and tried to show his client in a sympathetic light. He asked for Zimmerman to be let out of jail on the same bail amount as before.
But the judge did not appear willing to cut O’Mara any slack this time around. Lester cut him off multiple times during questioning of witnesses and even during his closing arguments.
O’Mara said that his client now knows it was wrong to let his wife lie for him on the witness stand. “He should have jumped up and said she’s lying,” O’Mara said.
Lester stopped him. “I don’t think I would expect that,” he said. “Maybe a tug on a sleeve.”
O’Mara also said he wanted his client to take the witness stand and explain why things went so badly at the last hearing. He said, though, he would only let Zimmerman testify if it was the judge and not the prosecutor asking the questions.
Lester, however, was uninterested in giving Zimmerman any special treatment.
“He’s the same as everyone else,” the judge said. “If he wants to testify, he can testify. If he doesn’t want to testify, he doesn’t have to testify. He has a Fifth Amendment right.”
After pausing a few moments to talk it over with his team, O’Mara said Zimmerman would not be testifying.
At the end of the hearing, Lester said he would need time to review the evidence and take it under consideration. He said he would issue his ruling sometime in the future.
Watch clips from Bernie de la Rionda’s closing argument:
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org