Here’s what most people know about Mark O’Mara: He’s the attorney who got George Zimmerman acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin.
They don’t know how he got the case, how he fought to have evidence turned over and how four minutes of silence were key to the not guilty verdict.
They also don’t know:
He’s the son of Irish Catholic parents, including a father who was a New York City firefighter.
He didn’t last long as a young prosecutor after telling a public defender that his teenage defendant had been coerced by police into confessing to killing her baby.
He built a successful practice by being such a workaholic that he married late in his 40s and never had children.
And he’s so grateful for the support from his wife of nearly 10 years that it will bring him to tears.
O’Mara, 58, was in Northeast Florida last week to speak at an American College of Trial Lawyers meeting in Amelia Island.
He talked to the Daily Record about the three phases of his life: before, during and after the Zimmerman case.
Building a practice
Fresh out of Florida State University law school, O’Mara cut his teeth as an assistant state attorney in Seminole County from 1982-84.
It was a job that allowed him to get a lot of trial experience, which he loved.
It also was a job that a couple of years into it put him at odds with his boss, he said.
O’Mara was assigned the case of a 16-year-old girl charged in the death of her baby. Her family didn’t know about the pregnancy and when the baby was born, she hid the infant under the bed and the baby died.
“The police pretty much talked her into confessing and sort of wanted my stamp of approval,” O’Mara said.
It wasn’t right, he said, because the police should have contacted the
parents of the girl, who was mentally challenged.
After he told the public defender what happened, it ultimately led to the girl being sentenced as a juvenile instead of for the original second-degree murder charge.
The office felt O’Mara turned on police, he said, and the writing was on the wall that his remaining time there would be short.
“I’d come in at 8:31 and they’d say I was late,” O’Mara said.
He left the state attorney’s office and started his practice, which was pretty much evenly split between criminal defense and family law.
O’Mara’s workaholic characteristics and a series of bigger cases helped build his profile in Central Florida, as did serving as a local television news legal expert in the Casey Anthony murder trial.
Then came the call on April 11, 2012, that changed his life.
Taking the case
O’Mara got a call from an attorney asking him about replacing the lawyers representing Zimmerman.
O’Mara believed the attorneys were taking the wrong approach. They were aggressive, antagonistic and starting to blame 17-year-old Martin for his death, O’Mara said.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, shot the unarmed Martin as the two fought the night of Feb. 26, 2012.
“They were making a very explosive situation much more dangerous,” O’Mara said of the previous defense lawyers.
He talked to Zimmerman for about an hour as the suspect was on his way to Jacksonville, where he was arrested.
Seeing Zimmerman for the first time was surprising, O’Mara said, recalling the 90-minute visit with his client in jail. “I’d only seen what the media had put out there,” which he described as “bulldog” Zimmerman compared to the photograph of Martin when he was 12 or 13.
“When I walked into that jail cell and looked at the guy, I actually thought for a split second I was in the wrong room,” he said.
Zimmerman was 5-foot-8 and weighed about 175 pounds. “To me, he almost looked diminutive,” O’Mara said.
He also had his first conversation with State Attorney Angela Corey, who had been appointed special prosecutor by Gov. Rick Scott. The call was pleasant and served as an introduction for the two.
Soon, the discussions with her office would not be as cordial.
Fighting for evidence
O’Mara complained in court then and voiced his displeasure again last week over what he called “sandbagging” when it came to prosecutors in the Zimmerman case turning over evidence during discovery.
The first battle came over a black-and-white photograph taken of Zimmerman the night of Martin’s death. The photo showed something near Zimmerman’s mouth but it wasn’t clear what it was.
The defense team, which also included attorney Don West, asked prosecutors for a color version. When they didn’t get one, they asked again.
Two and a half to three months later, the defense received what O’Mara called a “pastel” version of the photo — the result of a color photo being copied on a photocopying machine. It still wasn’t clear what was on Zimmerman’s face.
Ultimately, O’Mara said, they had to have a hearing on the issue before getting the digital color version. It was clear at that point there was blood on Zimmerman’s face from injuries sustained when he and Martin fought. “It showed the guy was beat to hell,” he said.
O’Mara said the defense also never got the full Florida Department of Law Enforcement file from prosecutors and had to get permission from the judge to go to FDLE and review the information.
Among the items they found was a map that tracked “pings” from Martin’s cellphone that showed where he made calls from during the four minutes before he and Zimmerman had their second encounter that led to the teenager’s death.
O’Mara said the prosecution also failed to turn over evidence from Martin’s cellphone. He said prosecutors contended there was no evidence from the phone.
Shortly before the trial began in June, O’Mara was contacted by an attorney for Ben Kruidbos, who was an information technology employee for Corey’s office. Kruidbos said he told lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda in January that he found evidence on the phone.
Kruidbos was later fired by Corey’s office. He has filed a lawsuit against her.
“At this point, we now know it’s been an absolute pattern to delay giving us information,” O’Mara said.
A motion was filed seeking sanctions against prosecutors. O’Mara said it was Zimmerman’s choice whether to proceed with the matter.
“If I was George, I’d probably never want go anywhere near a criminal courtroom again,” he said. “I think he’s going to decide not to.”
In an email to the Daily Record asking for a response to the allegations of withholding evidence, Corey’s spokesman, Jackie Barnard, said, “The State Attorney’s Office is currently focused on the prosecution of Michael Dunn.”
Corey is prosecuting the murder case herself.
Four minutes of silence
O’Mara said he was confident going into trial because he thought the evidence against Zimmerman was weak
And, he said, “The state presented less of a cohesive prosecution than I thought they were going to.”
As O’Mara was finalizing his closing argument the night before he was supposed to give it, one question he thought was significant was what Martin was doing in the time between the end of the first encounter and the beginning of the second one.
Those four minutes between life and death, in a fatal confrontation that happened 80 yards from Martin’s house.
During his closing argument, without telling the jury specifically what he was doing, O’Mara said he was going to take a little break. Then he set his stopwatch.
While he was subtly watching jurors, they were watching him as he sat down, stood up, started looking at some of the exhibits, talked to someone in court. Anything it took to make it four minutes.
Then he told the jurors of the significance of that time.
“I knew that four-minute gap was in essence not very subtly saying Trayvon caused his own death because Trayvon had four minutes to avoid the situation and he … decided not to,” O’Mara said.
In just more than 16 hours, the jurors came back with a not guilty verdict on the second-degree murder charge.
Once court recessed, O’Mara was congratulated by his wife, Jen, with a hug and a kiss.
As he began to talk Friday about what her support has meant, tears filled his eyes and he was unable to speak for a while.
“She kept things calm and balanced,” he said of the woman he called the “love of his life.” “She was perfect in what she had to be to allow me to be what I was.”
Life after Zimmerman
O’Mara and his practice have benefited from the international exposure the case received.
The practice is getting more and better cases, and he’s adding staff.
He’s a CNN analyst, where he’s talked about cases ranging from Michael Dunn to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to cyberbullying.
O’Mara’s added trial consulting work to his practice and he and West have started Justice Outreach, which is aimed at improving the justice system.
And he gets plenty of speaking engagement invitations.
He wishes the best for the man whose case brought him the perils and rewards of this fame. He believes Zimmerman was damaged by the way his case was handled by prosecutors and by the media. “George became a focus point for a racist event that really wasn’t,” O’Mara said.
He’s certain Zimmerman will never have a normal life, despite the acquittal.
And he knows there’s still a lot of anger directed toward Zimmerman, and to a lesser degree, to himself.
“What did I do?” he said. “I represented a guy that was innocent.”