The lead detective in the George Zimmerman murder trial has hired famed lawyer Jose Baez to represent him as he maneuvers the next steps of the contentious, high-profile case, The Miami Herald has learned.
Chris Serino, a former Sanford police major-crimes investigator, became a controversial figure when evidence revealed he had quietly filed an arrest affidavit a few weeks after the shooting death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin, even as his chief publicly said there wasn’t enough evidence to make a case.
A letter was sent last week by Baez to Dean Ringer Morton & Lawton, the law firm that sometimes represents the city of Sanford, advising that he will represent Serino in the upcoming proceedings. It is highly unusual for investigators to approach a murder trial with their own counsel.
Baez, who gained fame with the 2011 Casey Anthony child-murder case, declined to comment. A spokesman for Baez confirmed the letter and said Serino felt he needed an attorney to look out for his interests in the next stage of the case, but that he does not plan to file a lawsuit.
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“He wants his own counsel — he’s intimidated,” said Baez spokesman Michael Wright. “It may not be a friendly deposition.”
Tape-recorded interviews between Zimmerman and Serino showed the investigator was skeptical of the suspect’s account almost from the start. Three days after Trayvon was shot, Serino peppered Zimmerman with inconsistencies in his story and what he viewed as Zimmerman’s minor injuries, which did not match his dramatic account of events.
Days after the interviews were made public, Serino, a 15-year department veteran, was transferred to patrol duty on the overnight shift.
Like other Sanford police officers, he will soon have to give his sworn statement to prosecutors and Zimmerman’s defense team.
Defense lawyer Mark O’Mara recently began interviewing Sanford police officers and detectives to determine who at the department wanted to arrest Zimmerman. Early interviews suggested the department was largely in agreement that there was no case against Zimmerman, O’Mara has said.
An FBI report released this summer showed Serino told agents that he was pressured by African-American officers to file charges.
The Feb. 26 killing exploded into national news after Sanford police, citing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, declined to arrest Zimmerman. The police department never revealed that there was internal disagreement about whether to file charges against Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, said he encountered Trayvon as the teenager walked through the townhouse complex where Zimmerman lived. Zimmerman called police to report a suspicious stranger, and minutes later the two were wrestling in the grass.
Zimmerman claims he was attacked by the unarmed teenager and forced to shoot him in self-defense.
Once the case was taken away from the Sanford police, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.
Baez gained fame when he represented Casey Anthony, a Central Florida mom charged with killing her toddler after she disappeared in 2008. Although Baez’s performance in the courtroom was widely disparaged, his client was acquitted.
He recently published a book about the case, and opened a law office in Coral Gables.
It is not the first time Baez’s name has come up in the case. Recorded jailhouse phone calls released as evidence revealed that Fox News broadcaster Sean Hannity had offered to pay for Zimmerman’s legal defense — but only if Baez were hired. Then, last month, Baez wrote a letter to the presiding judge, scolding prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda for spreading false information about him during a hearing held on whether to silence the lawyers.
Sanford City Attorney Lonnie Groot said the city was unaware of Baez’s recent involvement in the case. O’Mara did not return a telephone call seeking comment.