SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — George Zimmerman is getting out of jail. Now his defense team has to worry about keeping the neighborhood watch volunteer accused of gunning down Trayvon Martin safe on the outside.
Defense attorneys for other high-profile clients who awaited trial on bail had advice for how to protect the man whose shooting of the unarmed black 17-year-old sparked nationwide protests: Get him out of Florida, keep him from going out in public and never leave him alone.
“He clearly puts himself in jeopardy unless he takes precautions,” said New York attorney Barry Slotnick, who represented subway shooter Bernhard Goetz in the 1980s.
A half dozen reporters, photographers and cameramen began staking out the Seminole County Jail early Saturday in Sanford, a day after a Florida judge agreed to let Zimmerman out on $150,000 bail. Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, said it would take a few days before Zimmerman is released. His family needs time to secure collateral for the bail, Zimmerman needs to be fitted with an electronic monitoring device and O’Mara said he must find a secure location for him.
Zimmerman appeared to be wearing a bulletproof vest under his charcoal suit, and his wife and parents testified by telephone instead of in the courtroom because they said they’ve been threatened and feared for their safety. His wife, Shellie Zimmerman, testified she had received hate mail.
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester on Friday indicated that Zimmerman would be allowed to leave Florida if arrangements can be made with law enforcement to have him monitored out of state.
“The initial challenge is going to be first be getting him out of Sanford,” said attorney Jose Baez, whose former client, Casey Anthony, endured similar scrutiny when she was released from an Orlando jail last summer after being acquitted of killing her 2-year-old daughter. “Everybody knows where he is getting released from. That is the first problem.”
Before he turned himself in to authorities earlier this month to face a second-degree murder charge, members of the New Black Panthers had put out a bounty for Zimmerman’s arrest. Protesters nationwide had held rallies carrying signs and chanting “Arrest Zimmerman Now!” Because of the emotions surrounding the case, O’Mara said of Zimmerman’s release: “I would much rather do this safely than quickly.”
O’Mara said he had several options for where Zimmerman should go, but he wouldn’t disclose them. The judge appeared willing to help keep Zimmerman’s whereabouts secret in the court file, as O’Mara requested.
“I don’t know where we’re going to end up,” O’Mara said after the bail hearing. “It’s a very difficult decision to make. It’s an enormously high-profile case and there are just a lot of emotions that exist.”
In Anthony’s case, Baez had the cooperation of sheriff’s deputies who blocked traffic from the Orange County Jail and entrances to a nearby interstate so they could have unimpeded access to the highway during her late-night release. Anthony later made her way to Ohio without being detected, but had to return to an undisclosed location in Florida to serve out probation on a check-fraud charge.
A spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office said late Friday that no special arrangements like that had been made yet for Zimmerman’s release.
But Baez said law enforcement officials would be called on to safely get him out of jail and away from media. “From then on, it’s really up to Mr. Zimmerman as to whether he’s going to be able to keep a low profile,” he said.
Baez said he expects there to be a cooling-off period over the next couple of months as Zimmerman fades from the spotlight and the public’s attention moves on.
But until then, Zimmerman’s attorneys should expect intense interest in where Zimmerman is, said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami who is now in private practice.
“I think they have to be prepared for a manhunt by not only members of the media but curious onlookers,” Coffey said. “The whereabouts of George Zimmerman will be one of the most intriguing curiosities of the legal world in the coming weeks.”
Post-bail security costs don’t come cheap, either, and it could be extremely difficult for Zimmerman to pay for it. His attorney is considering having him declared indigent, and his wife has no income because she is in nursing school and does not work.
In an extreme case, it cost some $200,000 a month to keep Dominique Strauss-Kahn under house arrest at a luxury Manhattan town house when he was accused of assaulting a hotel maid. Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff was protected by 24-hour-a-day armed guards and cameras recording his every move. Retired federal and high-ranking New York City police officers kept tabs on everything at his secured Upper East Side penthouse, even deliveries to the building.
Once he is situated in his new location, Zimmerman needs to never be alone so he can have someone at his side should a threat arise, and he shouldn’t associate with anybody he hasn’t known for a long time, said Slotnick. His client, Goetz, was acquitted of most charges except several firearm charges for shooting four men who he alleged tried to mug him in a case that came to symbolize vigilante justice.
“He will not be forgotten. He will be recognized,” Slotnick said of Zimmerman.
Keeping a low profile is important to his safety, but Zimmerman doesn’t need to completely disappear from the public view and could benefit from some strategic public appearances, said Los Angeles attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr., whose clients have included singer Michael Jackson and actor Robert Blake.
When Jackson was being tried on child molestation charges, Mesereau had him visit a church and make a few public statements. Jackson was acquitted of the charges.
“It is part of a process of humanizing him,” Mesereau said. “You don’t want him to go out there and act gratuitously, in an overly dramatic way. That would be a mistake. But he is a human being … and you want them to see a very low-key, respectful person who, from their point of view, does some good things with his life.”
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