Zimmerman attorney was Casey Anthony commentator

April 12, 2012 - 5:29 PM
Neighborhood Watch

George Zimmerman, left, stands with his attorney Mark O'Mara during a court hearing Thursday April 12, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Gary W. Green, Orlando Sentinel, Pool)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — When Casey Anthony stood trial last summer in her toddler's death, Mark O'Mara became a familiar face on local television making daily critiques of prosecutors and defense attorneys in the world-famous case.

Legal experts will now train their sights on O'Mara, who faces the parsing of his every move by a hungry public now that he is defending the neighborhood watch volunteer charged with killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

O'Mara took on the job Wednesday, the day that a special prosecutor filed a second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who says he shot the unarmed teen in self-defense.

Before he was a legal expert at the trial of Anthony, who was acquitted of killing her 2-year-old daughter, O'Mara had a 27-year career pursuing self-defense cases, among others, but none that made headlines beyond the state line. Attorneys who know him used words like self-effacing and deliberate to describe him.

"He is not someone who is going to loud-talk or try to be bossy," said defense attorney Randy McCLean. "I think he comes across as knowledgeable and confident."

They couldn't imagine O'Mara would have staged a news conference like Zimmerman's ex-attorneys did on Tuesday, announcing on television they could no longer represent Zimmerman since he hadn't called them back and seemed to be behaving erratically.

O'Mara, 56, did stand before cameras Wednesday and Thursday after his client made a brief appearance before a Seminole County magistrate on second-degree murder charges. He said he wasn't taking a fee from Zimmerman and expressed concern about the release of papers that could violate the privacy of his client and Martin.

"He's frightened," O'Mara said of his client. He described the case as "a horrible intersection of two young men's lives and it ended in tragedy. We have to figure out how it happened, why it happened and who might be responsible for it."

In separate interviews with The Associated Press, O'Mara said he joined the case after being contacted by Zimmerman's family who had heard about him through other attorneys. When asked why he took the case, given Zimmerman's unpopularity, he said, "It's what I do."

He added, "I've done it for a long, long time. I think I'm pretty good at it. Mr. Zimmerman needs a very good and focused defense so we're going to build him one."

In the minutes after it became public that O'Mara was Zimmerman's new attorney, phones at the attorney's Orlando office began ringing nonstop Wednesday. The ringing made it difficult to hear what special prosecutor Angela Corey was saying as she announced the charges over a television at his office in a converted craftsman bungalow.

Zimmerman fatally shot Martin on Feb. 26 while the neighborhood watch volunteer was patrolling his gated community in Sanford, a town of 50,000 outside Orlando. Martin was walking back from a convenience store to the home of his father's fiancé when Zimmerman spotted him from his truck. He called 911 to report a suspicious person, then began following Martin. Moments later, residents heard shouts for help and a gunshot. Martin was found dead with a shot to the chest.

Zimmerman told authorities that he shot Martin in self-defense. Florida's so-called "stand your ground" law gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. O'Mara has said his client would invoke the law, and could ask a judge to drop the case at a pretrial hearing before it reaches a jury.

O'Mara said that Zimmerman hasn't given him any details yet about what happened that night. He asked that some documents related to Zimmerman's arrest be sealed at a brief first appearance hearing; the judge didn't immediately rule.

O'Mara has had a wide-ranging practice throughout his career; he said he hasn't yet argued a case before a jury that involved a direct invocation of the state's 7-year-old "stand your ground" law.

"It is going to be a facet of this defense, I'm sure," O'Mara said. "That statute has some troublesome portions to it and we're now going to have some conversations and discussions about it as a state. But right now it is the law of Florida and it is the law that is going to have an impact on this case."

Public Defender Bob Wesley, who knew O'Mara in law school, said he has a reputation for hard work.

"He was always a grinder, working, working, working," said Wesley, whose jurisdiction covers metro Orlando. "He will be hardworking and humble and diligently prepare the case for presentation."

O'Mara, lanky and with reddish hair, grew up in Queens and followed his parents to Florida following high school after his father retired as president of a fire officers union. He knew in grade school he wanted to be an attorney when he grew up.

"As a good Irish Catholic boy, the first possibility was to be a priest," O'Mara said. "The second one was to be a lawyer."

He attended college at University of Central Florida and law school at Florida State. Married with no children, his hobbies include training German shepherds, boating and photography.

As a defense attorney, O'Mara said he sees himself as the "front line" in protecting civil liberties.

"People harass criminal defense attorneys some time, but it's like going to a dentist — you never really want to go to one but you want them there when you need one," O'Mara said. "Not to sound too uppity about it, but we're the ones who really make sure the rest of us can enjoy the liberties that the Constitution guarantees, and that it's done right if it's going to be done at all."