O’Mara out of time in Zimmerman case

April 16, 2013

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Abbyj said,

Omar will ride the PayPal buckaroo to the bitter end in an effort to squeeze out every last cent. He is hoping for a massive windfall, as fogen received early on. Without any hope of a great fortune appearing, O’Mara will then stand before Judge Nelson, wring his hands, and whine, “I haven’t had the financial resources to hire experts . . . ” Could fogen use this as grounds for an appeal?

Good question.

We begin at the beginning. Appellate courts hate piecemeal appeals. With one notable exception, they will refuse to review a case unless the circuit court has entered a final judgment terminating it. The exception is the writ procedure that permits a party to seek extraordinary relief from a specific order issued by a judge in the circuit court that, in effect, functions as a final order in a case depriving the losing party of an opportunity to present its case and argument in the circuit court.

The defense used the writ procedure to recuse Judge Lester (mandamus) and is now using it (certiorari) in an attempt to get an order vacating (setting aside) Judge Nelson’s order denying the defense motion to depose Benjamin Crump. I do not believe this effort will be successful because I think Judge Nelson made the correct legal decision. Since other witnesses were present when Crump interviewed Dee Dee to determine the cause of Trayvon’s death on behalf of his clients, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, his efforts constitute protected attorney work product that is not subject to disclosure. Moreover, the defense team cannot show they were prejudiced by Judge Nelson’s order because they can interview Dee Dee and the witnesses who were present. Therefore, Judge Nelson’s decision is not a final judgment or order that functioned like a final judgment by depriving the defense of its only opportunity to discover potentially favorable information for the defense.

With regard to your specific question, the defense would have to file a motion requesting some form of financial assistance from the court to pay for something that the defense has a right to do, but cannot afford to do. The defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel at public expense, if he cannot afford counsel. The right to effective assistance of counsel at public expense, includes paying reasonably necessary expenses for investigators and expert witnesses.

Mark O’Mara and Don West have agreed to work pro bono, so they will not be asking the court to compensate them for the time they spend working on the case. However, their agreement to work pro bono does not mean that they also have agreed to pay the costs that will be incurred to defend their client. Specifically, the court cannot require them to pay experts and investigators.

The internet donations were supposed to cover those costs. According to O’Mara, however, the defense is underwater by approximately $10,000. I doubt that includes the $28,000 claim for services rendered by the security company, unless O’Mara has paid down the balance. Therefore, the defense may be in more serious financial trouble.

Judge Nelson cannot do anything unless O’Mara files a motion. An appropriate motion would be to ask her to enter an order declaring the defendant indigent and entitled to the reasonably necessary assistance of investigators and experts at public expense. Such a motion would have to be supported by a detailed financial statement or tax return submitted under oath. Given the substantial sum of money donated to the defendant via the internet (possibly approaching $500,000) that somehow disappeared and the defendant’s “potted plant” behavior at his bail hearing last summer when his wife under oath denied knowing that he had any assets just a few days after she transferred over $100,000 from the internet account into her personal account via his personal account pursuant to his specific instructions, I think Judge Nelson would refuse to accept anything at face value. I think she would insist the prosecution review the documentation or she might appoint a special master to review it, if the defense were to object. I think the defendant and his lawyers could safely assume that any irregularities would result in additional criminal charges.

If Judge Nelson were to deny the motion to declare the defendant indigent, her denial could be challenged on appeal. The issue would be whether she abused her discretion in denying the motion. In turn that would depend on the sufficiency of the documentation supplied by the defense.

To properly preserve this issue for appeal, the defense would have to ask Judge Nelson to reconsider her denial of his motion to appoint an investigator or an expert at every available opportunity. A failure to provide a road map in the trial transcript of requests to reconsider supported by specific reasons why an investigator or expert was reasonably necessary at that particular time might be fatal. For example, the DCA might agree that Judge Nelson abused her discretion by denying the request for indigency, but find that the error was harmless absent sufficient documentation of the harm to the defense caused by the denial.

If Judge Nelson were to grant the motion, O’Mara would have to submit ex parte motions to appoint specifically named individuals to do specific things. She would probably appoint one investigator. The number of experts she would be willing to appoint would depend on the relevance of their area of expertise to the subject matter at issue in the case. The rate of compensation would be at the reduced rate that the court has established for appointed cases.

If the jury were to convict the defendant and O’Mara failed to hire an investigator or an expert to assist in preparing for trial and putting on a defense, his failure to do those things could be raised in a state habeas petition after the appeal is unsuccessful. Habeas petitions are based on evidence that is not in the record and typically are based on defense counsel’s failure to do something that he should have done. The failure asserted in this instance would be the failure to hire an investigator or expert. If that happened due to lack of money and O’Mara did not ask Judge Nelson to find the defendant indigent, the claim would be that he provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to make the request.

In order to prevail, habeas counsel would have to convince the court that O’Mara’s conduct was deficient according to prevailing standards of conduct and that, but for the deficiency, the result of the trial probably would have been different.

It takes time to assemble a team of experts and investigators and it takes additional time for them to complete their assignments. O’Mara should have assembled his team before Thanksgiving. The trial is scheduled to begin in less than 60 days and the defense fund is underwater $10,000.

Even if Judge Nelson were to enter orders tomorrow finding the defendant indigent and appointing an investigator and experts, all financial compensation would be limited to services provided in the future.

Given that dire financial situation, plus one unhappy creditor having already sued O’Mara alleging that he has refused to pay $28,000 for services provided, I doubt anyone will invest any time or effort to help O’Mara without a substantial retainer up front.

Such is the nature of the criminal defense business.

Just like his client, he is out of time.

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