George Zimmerman’s Lawyers Withdraw In Bizarre Press Conference

The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case takes yet another bizarre turn.

Just when I thought the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case couldn’t get any stranger, it did:

The Trayvon Martin case took a bizarre turn Tuesday when George Zimmerman’s attorneys said they were dropping the neighborhood watch captain as a client, complaining that they have lost all contact with him and that he called the prosecutor and talked to a TV host after they told him not to speak to anyone.

The lawyers portrayed Zimmerman as erratic and his emotional state as shaky, and they expressed fear for his mental and physical health amid the pressure that has been building over the past month since he shot and killed Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

“As of the last couple days he has not returned phone calls, text messages or emails,” attorney Craig Sonner said. “He’s gone on his own. I’m not sure what he’s doing or who he’s talking to. I cannot go forward speaking to the public about George Zimmerman and this case as representing him because I’ve lost contact with him.”

The split came as a special prosecutor neared a decision on whether to charge Zimmerman with a crime in the Feb. 26 shooting.

Sonner and colleague Hal Uhrig said they had not spoken with Zimmerman since Sunday. Since then, they said, they had learned that he spoke to special prosecutor Angela Corey’s office and to Fox TV host Sean Hannity without consulting them, in an attempt to give his side of the shooting. They said Corey refused to talk to Zimmerman without his attorneys’ consent and Hannity wouldn’t tell them what was discussed.

Zimmerman also set up his own website even as the lawyers were setting up one for him at his request. Zimmerman said on his website that he wants “to ensure my supporters they are receiving my full attention without any intermediaries.” The site allows visitors to give Zimmerman money for living expenses and legal bills.

Sonner and Uhrig said that they still believe in Zimmerman’s innocence and that they would probably represent him again if he contacted them and requested it. They said Zimmerman is in the U.S., but wouldn’t say where because they fear for his safety.

They said Zimmerman has been under extreme pressure and is basically alone, having gone underground because of the furor.

“This has been a terribly corrosive process. George Zimmerman, in our opinion, and from information made available to us, is not doing well emotionally, probably suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. We understand from others that he may have lost a lot of weight,” Uhrig said.

“To handle it this way suggests that he may not be in complete control of what’s going on. We’re concerned for his emotional and physical safety.”

I actually watched this entire press conference, or at least as much of it as CNN covered, on the television in my office. Mostly because CNN had initially, and erroneously it turns out, reported that Zimmerman himself would be making a statement, something that sounded insane to me from the start for rather obvious reasons. As it turned out, though, it was just his attorneys talking, but that didn’t make things any less interesting.

At first, I just started tuning out what these two attorneys were saying and went about completing end-of-the-day business, but then I started listening closely and it became fairly apparent that this was no ordinary press conference. First of all, let’s just make it clear that the fact that these attorneys apparently never received back from Zimmerman a signed copy of a Retainer Agreement does not mean that an attorney-client relationship did not, or still does not, exist. The minute these men started acting on his behalf in consultation with him they had certain ethical obligations toward him that continued until the moment that either he or they terminated that relationship. One or both of these attorneys have appeared on cable news shows in representation of him on more than one occasion, and they’ve apparently been in contact with the Special Prosecutor handling this case on his behalf (more about that in a little bit). So the idea that they might never actually have been his attorneys is an absurd idea that needs to be rejected immediately.

It appears that the basis for this entire event dates back all of 48 hours. The attorneys say that they lost contact with Zimmerman, but then say that they haven’t spoken with him since Sunday. (To be honest, the fact that I haven’t spoken with a client in two days when one of those days was a holiday wouldn’t necessarily concern me.) They also mention the fact that he, or someone close to him had apparently set up a website to raise money for a defense fund without their knowledge. This part I can kind of understand, if a client set up a website without my knowledge I’d be pretty annoyed to, especially since the first rule in a criminal case is that the Defendant shouldn’t make any public statements that their attorney hasn’t approved.

What I don’t understand, and cannot approve of, is the press conference itself.

There is no reason for these attorneys to hold a press conference to announce that they were no longer representing Zimmerman, although technically they didn’t even say that given that they said they might still represent him if contact was resumed. There was no reason for them to announce that he had contacted the Special Prosecutor on his own for some bizarre reason, or that he had apparently managed to get a phone cal through to Sean Hannity and talk to him (Guess who’s getting a subpoena, Sean?). There’s was even less reason for them to stand in front of national television camera and insinuate that their (ex?) client may or may not be mentally unbalanced.

Even if everything these two lawyers were saying about their inability to contact Zimmerman, and him apparently going behind their back to the prosecutor, is true, it strikes me as incredibly irresponsible, and potentially unethical, for them to make any of that public. They could have accomplished their withdrawal as his counsel merely by sending a letter to the prosecutor, and a press release to the media, announcing the same. Instead, they chose to become media stars for some bizarre reason and in the process they very well may have not only harmed Zimmerman’s interests but made it even more difficult for the prosecution to try any case they might bring against him.

Damn, I hate lawyers sometimes.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. Some of the quotes I saw made it sound more like the lawyers were more concerned with defending the Stand Your Ground Law than with defending George Zimmerman, so (assuming he got someone else), he may be better off without them.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Zimmerman is apparently a fruitcake and has ambulance chasing scumbags for lawyers….what a surprise.

  3. Modulo Myself says:

    It does seem like the lawyers really did not have to say what they said. Has CNN said why they thought it was Zimmerman making a statement? Maybe Zimmerman was going to show up, and then backed out, and these two guys couldn’t think of a lie to get the cameras off.

  4. @Brummagem Joe:

    Yea right Joe, who cares about that whole “Innocent until proven guilty” thing, right?

  5. Modulo Myself says:

    Maybe Zimmerman was going to show up, and then backed out, and these two guys couldn’t think of a lie to get the cameras off.

    Obviously, this might point to some flaws in their legal training…

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yea right Joe, who cares about that whole “Innocent until proven guilty” thing, right?

    What’s your point Doug….are you saying Zimmerman appears to be behaving rationally? And you said yourself his lawyers were scumbags.

  7. David M says:

    That press conference sounds like a train wreck. Even if the lawyers were there to prevent Zimmerman from doing something stupid, they still didn’t have to go through with it once he didn’t show up.

  8. @Brummagem Joe:

    The fact that his lawyers acted in a manner that I consider to be improper says nothing about the client

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The fact that his lawyers acted in a manner that I consider to be improper says nothing about the client

    So on the basis of the available info you would say Zimmerman appears to be behaving rationally?

  10. anjin-san says:

    The fact that his lawyers acted in a manner that I consider to be improper says nothing about the client

    Not so sure about that. He took them on as counsel. Who a person chooses to work with does, in fact, tell us something about them. Based on Zimmermann’s recent actions, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he is a fool who tends to make very bad decisions – the same thing his actions leading up to the Martin shooting indicated.

  11. James in LA says:

    Prosecutor says she’ll hold a presser within 72 hours to reveal “new findings.” One wonders if one of those is finding Zimmerman and arresting him first. Methinks George may have realized he must answer in a court for his decision to open his car door. Everything goes back to that decision.

  12. Herb says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    “who cares about that whole “Innocent until proven guilty” thing, right?”

    Lawyers.

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    @anjin-san:

    Zimmerman is a fool, but a defense lawyer should never be the one to state this in a press conference. If his lawyers thought Zimmerman was a fool and had no desire to follow him in a train-wreck, they should have withdrawn. There would be speculation, no doubt, as to why they did it, but it wouldn’t be this.

    I hate piety about the legal system but everybody deserves a lawyer who acts like a lawyer and not as some vague interpreter and mediator for the media.

    I get the sense that like Zimmerman, these two probably bit off more than they could chew.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    Excellent post, Doug. Completely agree.

  15. mantis says:

    So on the basis of the available info you would say Zimmerman appears to be behaving rationally?

    There is a difference between acting rationally and acting wisely.

  16. al-Ameda says:

    America may well be in decline but, we really do news-wrecks well. This Zimmerman-Martin case-to-be is like a slow motion NASCAR spinout – off the upper wall, clip another car or two, spin around twice, and slide into the infield.

  17. @anjin-san:

    None of which is relevant to the fact that Zimmerman is entitled to competent zealous representation by attorneys acting in his interests, not theirs

  18. @Brummagem Joe:

    I have insufficient direct information upon which to form a cogent opinion in response to your question

  19. Franklin says:

    It’s true that I was surprised to find out that “we’ve lost all contact” meant only two days. BUT, if he’s not returning their phone calls while phoning everybody else in town, then yeah, that makes it sound like he’s intentionally cutting them off.

    But Doug’s analysis seems correct here: regardless of what Zimmerman is doing, his lawyers’ job is to make the client look good, and they failed here. And by “his lawyers”, I mean anyone retained as his lawyer recently, including 20 minutes ago.

  20. @Franklin:

    It’s not just their job, it’s their ethical duty. Even if they have good cause to withdraw, and having been in the similar situation of having clients with whom I’ve lost contact or who have “gone rouge” I can understand why they would want to do that, they still have an obligation to do so in a manner that does not do harm to their client’s interests

    In my opinion, they completely failed in that respect today.

  21. Tillman says:

    On social media, you get these sorts of passive-aggressive snipes back and forth between two people who won’t talk to each other because each is convinced the other has committed some irrevocable faux pas.

    I submit that we are seeing the same thing here writ large.

  22. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    It’s high time for refresher courses for Messrs. Sonner and Uhrig on the ethical duty of confidentiality and the attorney-client privilege.

  23. Dazedandconfused says:

    Man, do I need to warn my kids about lawyers. Perhaps some kind of a 15 point talk…

    Just kidding!

    Really appreciate your sharing those professional insights into this, Doug. Wow.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    His lawyers are dicks. He may or may not be guilty of a crime, but his lawyers are dicks, that much is settled. I do not believe a client can reasonably be blamed for his lawyers.

  25. Jenos Idanian says:

    I wonder if any of Zimmerman’s erratic behavior is stress-related from the Mass Hate being marshaled against him. For example, one group’s actually put a “wanted dead or alive” bounty on him.

    You know, I thought those kinds of things were illegal, but I guess not…

  26. Ron Beasley says:

    Thanks for the insight Doug. I was thinking when I read about this – just how crazy can it get.

  27. PogueMahone says:

    @Jenos Idanian:
    I know, right? Shoot one innocent black kid and the whole world is against you. Poor Zimmerman, the sress must be a killer.

  28. Console says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    I wonder how much of his behavior is from the fact he shot an innocent 17 year old kid

  29. Dazedandconfused says:

    I would suggest anyone interested in what George’s thoughts are read the “Daily Caller” letter from “someone in the Zimmerman family”. He’s the most likely of the bunch who would have written anonymously.

    Scared, confused, not very bright. Probably has always been the Fredo of the family. Got along by being nice and doing all he could for those around him. The family would tend to be reflexively very protective of a guy like that.

    We’ve all met one of those people who, when frightened or stressed, embellish things, or even make things up. Even when the facts are plenty good enough… The nose might have been one of those sort of embellishments. The lawyers and the family blabbed it to everyone, and now he’s welded to it. A frightening position to be in.

  30. anjin-san says:

    None of which is relevant to the fact that Zimmerman is entitled to competent zealous representation by attorneys acting in his interests, not theirs

    In a perfect world? Sure. In the real world, he is entitled to counsel. He might get excellent representation or terrible, or somewhere in between. People get crap legal representation all the time, especially if they don’t have a lot of money.

    I am not defending his lawyers, they may well deserve a date with a disciplinary committee,

  31. MichaelSF says:

    You say: “The minute these men started acting on his behalf in consultation with him they had certain ethical obligations toward him that continued until the moment that either he or they terminated that relationship.” That’s too bad for Zimmerman that that is how they do things in VA and FL.

    As a lawyer for 20 years here in California, all of it in federal court litigation against the nation’s largest law firms, here in California these lawyers would be subject to discipline, suspension and maybe even disbarment.

    In California we are bound by the attorney/client privilege as soon as someone contacts us about possible representation. Regardless if the person or business retains our firm, we cannot talk to anyone (aka “outsiders”), much less the media, about what the prospective client said to us. We cannot comment about the person, we cannot render opinions, we cannot contact “the other side” whether opposing counsel, a party, or in the case, the prosecutor.

    In California Zimmerman is the holder of the attorney/client privilege. That means these attorneys cannot EVER violate that privilege, for example, even if Zimmerman stiffed them on the bill or acted, as these attorneys said to the media, mentally imbalanced, nuts, or was uncooperative.

    In California, these attorneys cannot determine that Zimmerman waived the privilege and give themselves a green light to hold a 45 minute press conference, that ended up compromising Zimmerman’s situation, and subjected him to NATIONAL scorn, ridicule and derision.

    In California an attorney is bound by ethics, Bar Rules, the law, and attorney/client privilege. We are bound by these things even AFTER the relationship, regardless of what it is, ends or terminates, for whatever reason.

    In California, especially federal courts, Judges are very strict on what a lawyer may say or not say when he or she is withdrawing from a case. Basically, a lawyer cannot betray a client’s confidences if the attorney is withdrawing from a filed case.

    If the attorney is simply withdrawing from a relationship as here, we are strictly prohibited from telling anyone the reason(s) we are withdrawing. If a case is not pending, we simply send a one sentence letter telling whomever understood we were counsel in the case that “we have withdrawn effective on a specified date.” We are prohibited from alluding it is about money, not being paid, the client being a loose cannon, not following our advice, being uncooperative, wanting to lie, whatever.

    I feel bad for Zimmerman if in Florida or Virginia attorneys are not bound by the same rules, laws and ethics as we must adhere to and honor in California. As unpopular or hated as Zimmerman may be, these attorneys’ conduct (that I concede may be legal in VA or FL) evidence the problem with a pitchfork justice mentality that goes on in those states.

    Here in California the attorney/client privilege is sacred and I would ask people on the Net, what would be your reaction if your attorney terminated your relationship and a few days later you see him on the national news talking smack about you, saying you are nuts, hiding out, are uncooperative and otherwise doing things that people are going to interpret as even your own attorneys saying you are guilty.

    It is a shame things are as this article states, that the attorneys’ ethics and honorable behavior “continued until the moment that either he or they terminated that relationship.”

    I suspect some lawyers here in California would love if that was the law. They could threaten “Pay my bill or I am holding a news conference.”

  32. Jenos Idanian says:

    @PogueMahone, @Console: So, just where did you two come up with the definitive proof that Martin was “innocent?” Last time I checked, the investigation is still ongoing and the current version has the “innocent” guy on top of the “cold-blooded killer,” bashing his head into the pavement.

    That version might not hold up, but it hasn’t been successfully challenged yet.

    In the meantime, though, if you’re so confident in the facts, why don’t you head on down there and collect that bounty? Apparently it’s not illegal, so — hey! Easy money!

  33. grumpy realist says:

    I’m very surprised that his lawyers did this, particularly their comments about his health.

    Jenos, what Zimmerman doesn’t seem to have ever learned is that a SYG law doesn’t mean you have a right to blast anyone with a gun just because you get frightened or think that the other is a Bad Man.

    There’s “innocent until proven guilty.” But that also holds for the person gunned down. And it’s pretty easy to tell a self-serving story in order to justify your actions. Hey, who’s going to contradict you? The other guy? He’s a cooling corpse on the ground.

    This is a case of a stupid law, indulging activity carried out by someone who doesn’t have the brains to keep himself out of trouble, then messed up by a police department that didn’t think they had to bother to carry out a real investigation.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    (Oh, and the “New Black Panthers”? Have absolutely no relation to the real Black Panthers, considered a hate group by the authorities. Loudmouths trying to provoke riots. Have as much relevance to the situation as Fred Phelps and his crowd of mouth-breathers. Am surprised that the Feds haven’t gone after them for their statements yet, except maybe the former consider the latter’s statements to be at the level of internet whining.)

  35. PD Shaw says:

    @MichaelSF: Good post. You may have read a more detailed legal analysis into what Doug was writing than he intended.

    I think the context here is that a suggestion was being made yesterday that a lawyer-client relationship had not been formed. Indeed, I later saw a lawyer on CNN stating that there was nothing for the lawyers to withdraw from, no court appearance had been filed. I believe that only goes to the question of whether _additional_ protocols were required for withdrawal, not whether any basic professional duties existed.

    I think the disciplinary body should take action against these lawyers. In such a high profile case, their conduct is likely to harm public perceptions of the trust they can expect of the relationship.

  36. DanaL says:

    I certainly agree that it seems like too much was said, which makes me wonder, “why?” I have two thoughts on the issue –
    (1) Maybe they are concerned that Mr. Zimmerman is a danger to himself and/or others and felt that a way to protect him and/or their own liability was to disclose information about his state of mind.
    (2) I have seen it reported that Mr. Zimmerman told the prosecutors that he had not hired counsel and that they were only working as his legal advisers – perhaps they are concerned about maintaining the privilege in the face of Zimmerman’s statements – the argument being that he was in a rational state of mind when he hired them, but now, when he is alleging that there is no attorney-client privilege, he is mentally unstable. It is also possible that Zimmerman has made incriminating statements either to Hannity or the prosecutor’s office and they are trying to do damage control by questioning Zimmerman’s state of mind.

  37. DRS says:

    …in the process they very well may have not only harmed Zimmerman’s interests but made it even more difficult for the prosecution to try any case they might bring against him.

    Well, maybe that’s the point? If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the facts are against you, argue the law. If both the law and the facts are against you, do something really over the top and confuse the hell out of everyone.

    A side note: I didn’t see the presser or read a transcript, but I did see another article about it (which I skimmed and didn’t read carefully, and now can’t remember where I saw it) that said the lawyers claimed they’d never actually talked to Zimmerman directly but always through his family or friends. Is this accurate or did I mis-read and/or mis-remember?

  38. anjin-san says:

    (Oh, and the “New Black Panthers”? Have absolutely no relation to the real Black Panthers, considered a hate group by the authorities. Loudmouths trying to provoke riots. Have as much relevance to the situation as Fred Phelps and his crowd of mouth-breathers.

    Exactly right. But “The New Black Panthers” are a useful bogeyman for the right. Scary black people!

  39. Console says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    At the end of the day, Zimmerman has to live with the fact he stalked and killed a kid that was coming home from the store with a bag of skittles and ice tea. No amount of legal technicalities or in-the-heat-of-the-moment justifications change that reality. You don’t walk away from that feeling good about yourself, or like you did the right thing. Not unless you’re a sociopath.

  40. anjin-san says:

    You don’t walk away from that feeling good about yourself, or like you did the right thing. Not unless you’re a sociopath

    That’s about it. And I am still struck by the bizarre empathy that so many on the right seem to have for Zimmermann, coupled with the desire to see Martin proved the bad guy.

  41. Janis Gore says:

    The lawyers might have behaved unethically, but their description of Zimmerman’s actions don’t prejudice me against him. If he’s freaked out because he killed someone, I feel more sympathy toward him.

  42. Rick Almeida says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    So, just where did you two come up with the definitive proof that Martin was “innocent?” Last time I checked, the investigation is still ongoing and the current version has the “innocent” guy on top of the “cold-blooded killer,” bashing his head into the pavement.

    By your facts, Martin was defending himself against an armed man who accosted him without reason. He stood his ground.

  43. matt says:

    @grumpy realist: Well the NBP reward is for capture not a Dead or alive thing like Jenos said. So can I get a confirmation that Jenos is talking about the new black panthers or a different group?

  44. mattb says:

    @matt:

    Well the NBP reward is for capture not a Dead or alive thing like Jenos said.

    Jenos may have played up the wanted dead-or-alive angle (this accusation comes from one of the NBP’s using the phrase “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” at a rally), but at the end of the day no rational thinking person should be defending offering a bounty for a citizens arrest.

    Given left leaning’s folk’s use of the Westburough Baptist Church or that Koran burning idiot in Florida to attack conservatives, you either have to accept Jenos doing the same thing with the NBP or do everything possible to condemn their actions.

    BTW, fun fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies them as a “virulently racist and anti-Semitic” hate group.

  45. DRS says:

    Given left leaning’s folk’s use of the Westburough Baptist Church or that Koran burning idiot in Florida to attack conservatives, you either have to accept Jenos doing the same thing with the NBP or do everything possible to condemn their actions.

    So what is this, freakin’ Calvinball? All right, we’ll play.

    BUT….if you want anyone to apologize for “left leaning’s (sic) folk’s (sic) use” of any example, then you have to provide a link to that particular usage so everyone can examine it and determine if it passes the sniff test. For one thing, I call shenanigans on the Westboro Baptist Church example; they’ve been around long enough for everyone to know that they’re simply nuts.

    And what if “the Koran burning idiot in Florida” self-identified as a conservative? Should we not take him at his word?

  46. grumpy realist says:

    If the “New Black Panthers” are to be considered “on the left”, then it’s at the point where the far left and the far right are into similar super-scary nuttiness and meet up again at Over The Insanity Event Horizon And Accelerating. From where I stand, it doesn’t seem to make a difference if your arguments for wiping out portions of humanity are a) religious b) racial theories, c) economic theories, d) whatever. They’re all nuts, and trying to figure out whether they’re “right-leaning” theories vs. “left-leaning” theories seems to be a remarkably unproductive use of one’s time.

  47. mattb says:

    @DRS & @grumpy realist

    I think if you were to poll the NBP’s you’ll find that their views on most social issues are coached in terms that align them with the far left (granted, as grumpy realist puts it, they are so far left that they meet the far right). And to that degree they are “far left” in the same way that WBC and Terry Jones are far right. They also have in common that all three have small memberships but somehow manage to attract a lot of media attention.

    They’re all nuts, and trying to figure out whether they’re “right-leaning” theories vs. “left-leaning” theories seems to be a remarkably unproductive use of one’s time.

    I totally agree. That ties into my point.

    If you google, you’ll find that historically, WBC and Jones have been often used as proxies to talk about what “conservatives” really feel. I was simply pointing out that Jenos was doing something similar (just in the other direction).

    I don’t think either move is particularly productive. And arguing about whether or not the New Black Panthers specifically said “dead or alive” is missing the larger point — that what they did is fundamentally unacceptable and should be decried as such.

    If you think that the NBP are as ridiculous as the WBC then that’s where that conversation should end and we really shouldn’t argue about the details of this particular case.

  48. Lit3Bolt says:

    @anjin-san:

    Many right-wingers have empathy for Zimmerman because they feel the true crime here was that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson exist and started “race hustling.” No crime was committed…until the darkies started showing up, agitating for “justice” which we all know is code for rap songs and food stamps.

  49. jsohn says:

    I think the attorneys may have received death threats and that is why they held a press conference so everyone would know they were out.