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On June 3, the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach served up a dose of troubling news for the Florida state attorney’s office prosecuting George Zimmerman.
The court overturned Judge Debra Nelson’s decision and ruled unanimously that Zimmerman’s attorneys were entitled to depose Benjamin Crump, the civil attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old shot by Zimmerman in February 2012.
At question was Crump’s phone interview in March 2012 with Dee Dee, the mystery 16-year-old phone friend of Trayvon Martin who would later morph into the 18-year-old State Witness No. 8.
Little about this witness added up. She spelled trouble for the prosecution because she and/or Crump were lying about her age and her hospitalization from day one.
On March 21, 2012, for instance, Crump told Matt Lauer on the “Today” show, “She is a 16-year-old teenager who just lost a friend very special to her.”
His colleagues on Team Trayvon repeated the same canard.
When HLN’s Nancy Grace asked attorney Daryl Parks why this witness had still not talked to the police five weeks after Martin’s death, he answered, “She’s a minor. So it’s a very delicate situation.”
For his part, State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda played along with the charade. It was not until November 2012 that the defense learned, through the witness’ affidavit, that she was 18 years old when interviewed by Crump and ABC’s Matt Gutman in March 2012.
During that same March interview, Crump had asked her about being hospitalized as a result of Martin’s death. “And that’s when you realized that the day of his wake that you were the last person talking to him and it just made you physically sick?” She answered in the affirmative.
In April 2012, de la Rionda formally interviewed this witness on the same point with similarly leading questions.
de la Rionda: OK what happened?
Witness 8: I didn’t feel good.
de la Rionda: OK, did you end up going to the hospital or somewhere?
Witness 8: Yeah. I had like, um, high blood pressure.
As early as August 2012, Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara asked the prosecution about the witness’ hospital records via email, but he got no response.
He sent a letter Sept. 19 on the same subject, but he got no response to that either. O’Mara also spoke to the prosecutors about these records repeatedly but without results.
In February 2013, he filed a motion to subpoena the medical records. Finally, two weeks later, Assistant State Attorney John Guy explained that there would be no need to move forward with subpoena as “no hospitalization records existed for Witness No. 8.”
There were no records for the simple reason that Witness No. 8 had not gone to the hospital. O’Mara accused the state attorney’s office of being “fully aware” of her lie since August 2012.
In addition, O’Mara chastised the state for its decision to conduct the formal April 2012 interview in the living room of the home of Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, in Fulton’s presence.
“Mr. de la Rionda had to know the potential influence that could occur,” said O’Mara, adding that this arrangement put “the legitimacy and veracity of the entire statement at issue.”
O’Mara also noted that de la Rionda had learned that the witness was an 18-year-old and kept that information from the defense as well.
As to why this lie was permitted to fester so long, O’Mara did not speculate, but it was likely to keep the media away from the witness. Other witnesses have spoken to the media.
The media went along with the ruse too, but only to a point. They were beginning to feel used. “Chief witness in Trayvon Martin case lied under oath,” read the CNN headline after O’Mara went public with his concerns in March.
Given the importance of this witness to the case and the dubiousness of her very identity, Zimmerman’s attorneys asked Judge Debra Nelson to compel Crump’s deposition.
Crump’s attorney denied that his client’s role in the affair was either relevant or crucial, and Nelson agreed. In her final three-sentence ruling, she offered no explanation as to why she did agree. Motion denied. Move on.
The appellate judges came down hard on Nelson. They dismissed her contention that Crump was an “opposing counsel” given that he was not acting as a lawyer for the state or the defendant.
As to “work product privilege,” they ruled that Crump abandoned any pretense he had to that privilege when he interviewed his witness in the presence of “two media representatives” who promptly shared excerpts on ABC News.
“The trial court erred in denying Zimmerman an opportunity to depose Crump,” said the Court of Appeal bluntly. This had to sting. The ruling also put Nelson on notice that she was not trying this case in a legal vacuum.
O’Mara will likely ask Crump just how he managed to find this witness more than two weeks after the shooting, why she refused to speak to prosecutors for weeks after that, and who was responsible for her manufactured cover story.
Witness No. 8, by the way, is the state’s key witness. She has already been caught in two lies. The state has to be losing sleep over how many others she will be caught in before the trial is through.