Sanford, Fla. — After weeks of nationwide marches and angry questions, two Florida lawyers stepped in front of banks of microphones and cameras and into the national morality play that the Trayvon Martin case has become.
“Our precious victim,” said the state’s special prosecutor, Angela B. Corey, referring to Martin as she announced Wednesday that neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who said he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self-defense, was being charged with second-degree murder.
“We need to calm this down,” Zimmerman’s defense lawyer, Mark O’Mara, said a short while later, his forehead wrinkled in the sun. “We now have a process in place. We have to let it work.”
By the time Zimmerman made his first, brief court appearance Thursday — the parking lot outside full of TV trucks, the cloudy Florida sky buzzing with news helicopters, the town tense with a few white supremacists walking around palm-lined streets — it seemed clear that Corey, 57, and O’Mara, 56, were trying to ratchet down tensions in a potentially explosive case.
At one point Thursday, a reporter asked O’Mara whether he would use a comment made by Martin’s mother to his advantage; Sybrina Fulton told NBC’s “Today” that her son’s killing was “an accident,” words she later clarified were not intended to absolve Zimmerman. O’Mara shook his head.
“We are not going to use words against the mother of a deceased child,” O’Mara said. “We’re not going to play that.”
Corey declined any media interviews Thursday.
“I think both understand they have a job to do, and it doesn’t matter if there are a billion people watching or one,” said Wayne Wooten, an assistant state attorney who knows both Corey and O’Mara and described them as tough, experienced professionals who are comfortable in the media spotlight but not enamored of it. “People will come away thinking that this case was well-lawyered.”
O’Mara took over Zimmerman’s defense Tuesday after Zimmerman’s initial attorneys, Hal Uhrig and Craig Sonner, held a bizarre news conference that was a glimpse of what might have been: Flailing his arms about, Uhrig ridiculed Martin’s defenders, cast Zimmerman as mentally unstable, and then said he and Sonner not only had lost contact with Zimmerman but had never once met him in person.
On Wednesday, people close to Zimmerman contacted one of the state’s best-known defense attorneys, Mark NeJame, who has represented Tiger Woods, among other high-profile defendants. NeJame said that he declined to take the case for personal reasons and recommended O’Mara.
“One reason I am so impressed with O’Mara is that he’s not insensitive,” said NeJame, who was granted permission by Zimmerman to discuss the selection of O’Mara. “He’s going to be a total advocate for his client. But that does not mean has to give up compassion for the other side.”
O’Mara is decidedly understated. He runs and bikes, has two German shepherds and works out of a shaded, bungalow-style house. He has worked as a criminal defense attorney in central Florida for more than two decades, handling cases from murder to assault and drug possession, among others.
Mara said Wednesday that only a few of those have involved Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law — which is expected to be key to Zimmerman’s defense — and that they were resolved before they reached juries.
“He’s effective because he’s so likable,” said Alex Zouzoulas, a former criminal defense attorney who knows O’Mara well. “That makes a difference to a judge and to juries. Because he’s so nice, you sort of pay attention to the guy. But he’s not an idiot.”
O’Mara’s adversary is an elected state attorney known as an aggressive, no-nonsense prosecutor who was appointed to the case after Norm Wolfinger, the state attorney with jurisdiction over this area, stepped aside March 22 amid public outrage that Zimmerman was not charged after the Feb. 26 shooting.
Colleagues say Corey, a graduate of the University of Florida Law School, is known for the way she tries to bond with victims’ families, a trait evident Wednesday as she spoke of Martin’s “sweet parents” and said she called them personally before announcing charges against Zimmerman.
Corey was an assistant state attorney for 25 years before being elected state attorney of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Northeast Florida in 2008. She was the first woman to hold that office and has prosecuted more than 50 homicide cases.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was involved in the selection of Corey as special prosecutor, described her as a “brilliant and compassionate lawyer.”
“Angela Corey has been a mentor to me for more than 20 years,” said Bondi. “She is gregarious, down-to-earth, kind and nurturing.”
Corey’s office has lacy drapes and pink Victorian sofas, though colleagues say she is anything but soft. In a study, two criminology professors at the University of North Florida wrote that Corey “lives up to every prosecutor’s mantra to be ‘tough on crime.’ ”
Professors Michael Hallett and Daniel Pontzer concluded that Corey chose cases based not only on the potential for success; she went to trial, they wrote, if she believed charges were warranted.
At times, Corey’s critics have said she is too aggressive. They cite a recent decision she made to prosecute a 12-year-old boy, Christian Fernandez, for murder in adult court. The boy allegedly beat to death his brother, who was 2, and Corey’s decision sparked demands that the case be handled in the juvenile system.
Corey ignored the public drama and has pressed on.
“Angela Corey is not going to be influenced by the public outcry or anything else,” said Bondi. “She is going to do the right thing, based on the facts of the case and the law that applies.”
Horwitz reported from Washington. Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.