by Kyle Hightower and Mike Schneider
Associated Press Writers
SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — The man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is said to be losing weight and suffering from high levels of stress from the intense public scrutiny he is under, his former lawyers said. Meanwhile, a special prosecutor said she will soon make an announcement in the case and the nation’s attorney general vowed separately to take action if evidence warrants it.
“He is largely alone. You might even say he is emotionally crippled by virtue of the pressure of this case,” said Hal Uhrig, a former lawyer for George Zimmerman. The protests and the profound isolation of going into hiding may have pushed him “a little bit over the edge,” said Uhrig and his colleague, Craig Sonner.
The two attorneys announced Tuesday they no longer were representing the neighborhood watch volunteer because they haven’t heard from him since Sunday.
“As of the last couple days, he has not returned phone calls, text messages or emails,” 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 attorneys said that, against their advice, Zimmerman contacted special prosecutor Angela Corey, who will decide if he should face charges, but prosecutors in her office refused to talk to him without his lawyers present.
“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,” Uhrig said.
A spokeswoman for Corey’s office didn’t respond to phone and email messages requesting comment, although late Tuesday Corey released a statement saying she would make an announcement on the case within 72 hours. The statement did not specify what new development in the case would be released.
Corey on Tuesday said her decision had no bearing on whether she would file charges against George Zimmerman. Corey could still decide to charge him with a serious felony such as manslaughter, which can carry a lengthy prison sentence if he is convicted.
A grand jury had been set to meet Tuesday in Sanford, about 20 miles northeast of Orlando.
Corey has long had a reputation for not using grand juries if it wasn’t necessary. In Florida, only first-degree murder cases require the use of grand juries.
Corey’s decision means she doesn’t have to rely on potentially unpredictable jurors, said David Hill, an Orlando criminal defense attorney.
“Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she knows there isn’t enough for first-degree murder but she wants to maintain control and charge him with something else,” Hill said. “What does she need a grand jury for? She cuts out the unpredictability of the grand jury. She goes where she feels she has more evidence.”
Corey took over the case last month after the prosecutor who normally handles cases out of Sanford recused himself. That prosecutor, Norm Wolfinger, had originally called for the case to be presented before a grand jury.
“From the moment she was assigned, Ms. Corey noted she may not need a grand jury,” said a statement from Corey’s office.
Prosecutors sometimes use grand juries to avoid the political fallout from controversial cases. But Corey was elected by voters more than 100 miles away in the Jacksonville area, so political problems are less of an issue for Corey, Hill said.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder also said the Justice Department is conducting a thorough and independent review of the case after launching its own investigation three weeks ago. During comments before a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Holder said that preventing and combating youth violence and victimization is a top priority of his department.
“If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action,” Holder said during the convention of Sharpton’s National Action Network.
Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense after following the teenager in a Sanford, Fla. a gated community outside Orlando on Feb. 26. He said he was returning to his truck when Martin attacked him and that he shot the unarmed teen during the fight. He wasn’t arrested partly because of Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.
The lack of an arrest has led to protests across the nation and spurred a debate about race and the laws of self-defense. Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Hispanic. Martin was black.
Zimmerman is unable to see a psychologist because he could be spotted, the attorneys said. A bounty for his arrest has been issued by the New Black Panther Party. Plus, he is anxious about possible charges if the special prosecutor believes he committed a crime, his former attorneys said.
Zimmerman also has been in touch with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, who declined to reveal Tuesday evening what was said.
Uhrig said after they found out that news, the “final straw” came when they learned Zimmerman contacted Corey’s office and said he wanted to meet. Uhrig said he told her he no longer had attorneys whom he called “legal advisers” representing him.
Uhrig said they were “a bit astonished” that he had contacted her on his own and that Corey and her team refused to talk to a potential defendant or suspect without counsel.
Zimmerman’s current lack of an attorney shouldn’t affect the speed of Corey’s decision-making since any decent lawyer would advise a client not to talk to prosecutors, said Roy Kahn, a defense attorney in Miami.
“It would not be in a client’s best interest to give any statement before it’s his time to testify at trial,” Kahn said. “Even if I believe he’s 100 percent innocent … my advice to the client would be, ‘Save it for the trial. It can’t help you.'”
Sonner, the first attorney Zimmerman contacted after the shooting, said he agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis until Zimmerman it’s determined if he’s charged. He said he has never talked to Zimmerman face-to-face, only on the phone, and that the 28-year-old man has gone into hiding but that he believes he’s still in the U.S.
Both attorneys said they’d be willing to represent him again if he asks.
Ben Crump, an attorney for Martin’s family, said they’re concerned that Zimmerman could be a flight risk if he is charged with a crime since his former attorneys don’t know how to contact him.
“At this point, we’re just concerned that nobody knows where he is at. Nobody knows how to get to him,” Crump said.
Meanwhile, tensions were rising in Sanford as townspeople awaited the prosecutor’s decision. Someone shot up an unoccupied police car early Tuesday as it sat outside the neighborhood where Martin was killed. And a demonstration by college students closed the town’s police station Monday.
Some residents said they worry there will be violence if Corey decides not to charge Zimmerman. Many in town believe she will announce her decision soon.
Police aren’t saying what, if any, precautions they are taking.
Zimmerman set up a website therealgeorgezimmerman.com to collect money from his supporters, but the attorneys didn’t know about it until they started getting questions from the news media, Sonner said. They had worked with his father and others to set up a different account and when they started getting questions about the new site, Uhrig assumed it was “bogus.”
Since then, they determined the site is legitimate.
Sonner said he stands behind his statements that Zimmerman did act in self-defense, however, “I just can’t proceed to represent a client who doesn’t stay in contact with me.”
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami, said it is unusual for attorneys to hold a news conference to explain why they no longer are representing a client.
“The lawyers have every right to withdraw, but it’s highly unusual, and it will be controversial, for counsel to describe their client’s erratic behavior,” said Coffey, who is now in private practice. “In the court of public opinion, the press conference was not helpful for George Zimmerman.”
Speaking Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show, Sonner and Uhrig defended going public with their decision to stop representing Zimmerman, saying they didn’t feel it was right to speak for him when they weren’t in touch with him. Sonner also said Zimmerman was hiding in a place “where he won’t be found.”