Has George Zimmerman gone rogue?
He launched his own Internet site Wednesday night, saying his lawyer’s web page had failed in three key missions: disputing information, fund-raising and providing a voice for him.
And a voice he’s offering: late Thursday, he posted a bilingual video of himself on YouTube, reaching out to supporters as news spread that his legal defense fund had been virtually depleted.
The new website went up just hours after he backed out of an interview with television personality Barbara Walters, because the network refused to pay for a month of hotel and security for Zimmerman’s wife. Then he called Walters to apologize – during her live TV show “The View.”
“He is desperate for money,” Walters said on the air. “He is very worried about his family and his wife and parents and has gotten death threats. It’s hardly a good situation for anyone.”
A flurry of bizarre turns the past two days suggest Zimmerman has begun to break away from the advice of his lawyer and take matters into his own hands. Legal experts say it’s a risky move for him to go so public, when he still faces the prospect of life in prison. Some question his attorney’s judgment in allowing him to continue that behavior.
“The client always calls the shots,” his lawyer, Mark O’Mara said Thursday. “If you’re on the streets or about to be hungry and worried for the wife you love, maybe you have to make decisions along the way.’’
Walters flew to Central Florida Wednesday in the hopes of securing a sit-down interview with Zimmerman, who gained national notoriety for the Feb. 26 shooting of an unarmed Miami Gardens teenager named Trayvon Martin. She said despite advice from his attorney to do the interview, Zimmerman showed up in a T-shirt and made a deal-breaking last-minute demand.
She and her crew packed up and went back to New York, only to get a call from him and O’Mara the next morning during her live show. She politely declined to take the call.
“He just wanted to thank her for being gracious and to apologize,” O’Mara said. “We weren’t expecting to do an interview live on her show.”
O’Mara said the former neighborhood watch volunteer made the request for hotel and security because he is frantically worried over finances. He fears he will get arrested for misleading the court about his finances, and is upset about the perjury charge his wife was slapped with.
Zimmerman also has been hammered by another spate of negative publicity. This month alone, a judge accused him of trying to abscond with contributions from the public, a childhood sexual molestation accusation was revealed Monday, and at least two witnesses told authorities that his mom dislikes blacks.
Zimmerman appears to be exhibiting similar behavior that led to his break with his first set of attorneys, who quit the case in a nationally televised press conference. Back then, they said Zimmerman was not taking their calls, had reached out to the prosecutor and to conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, and launched a legal defense fund that rivaled one they had set up with Zimmerman’s dad.
“O’Mara is not in control over the situation and has got to pull the reins in,” said Miami Beach criminal defense lawyer Michael Grieco, who has been following the case. “Zimmerman is a loose cannon...he can’t see past his nose.’’
O’Mara says that despite the series of what appear to be hasty choices – including a widely panned interview with Hannity that aired Wednesday – he has not lost control of his client.
“It was a team decision, made on the fly, quite quickly,” he said of the decision to call Walters. “Someone said she was talking about it on the show, so we jumped up and turned on the TV. There wasn’t a lot of forethought.”
And why, so many experts have asked, did O’Mara allow a national interview before a second-degree murder trial, knowing it would wind up as evidence in his case? Because they’re broke, he said, a few hours after the Assistant State Attorney handling the case filed paperwork adding the interview the list of evidence.
The legal defense fund that first raised over $200,000 in 11 days has whittled down to nearly nothing, O’Mara said.
“The skyrocketing legal costs have gone unpaid,” Zimmerman wrote on his website. “The defense fund is at its lowest point since its inception.’’
They were forced to pay $100,000 in bond fees when the judge in the case raised the bond to $1 million, and bodyguards cost almost $50,000. Records show the couple spent $35,000 in an 18-day spending spree, in which they paid off their credit card debt, made car payments and paid off new phone and Internet contracts.
“The reason he did the Sean Hannity interview was out of fear and need,” he said. “That’s not the best way to make a decision in a criminal defense case.”
Although he suggested the final decision was Zimmerman’s, he said he thought the potential benefits could outweigh the risks. The last time Hannity spoke on the air about Zimmerman’s defense fund, there was an outpouring of donations.
O’Mara said he allowed the interview because, for one, he believes his client is innocent. He also figured it would not be so damaging for him to make a public statement, when he had given so many statements to police already.
As for the revived website, he said Zimmerman always wanted to maintain his own web presence in the face of false rumors and imposters. O’Mara acknowledged being in “unchartered waters” in a case of this kind, and said he will check in on the site periodically.
“This has been the most difficult time of my life,” Zimmerman wrote. “Rumors and lies about the case and me are rampant on the Internet. I want to set the record straight about some things.’’