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Less Than Meets the Eye on Zimmerman Legal Fees

The website Opposing Views regularly puts out emails with headlines that sound outrageous, designed to get a rise out of readers.

The email I received this morning says, "Florida taxpayers will end up footing the bill for George Zimmerman's legal fees after his recent acquittal in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin."  Really?  Florida provides attorneys' fees to acquitted criminal defendants?  That would be highly unusual, if true.
Click on the "read more" link, and you go to this story.  The headline reads, "George Zimmerman Will Ask Florida To Cover His Legal Bills."  "Asks" is different from "will," but "cover" still implies it's the whole wad, including attorneys' fees.

The first sentence of the article says, "Florida taxpayers might end up footing the bill for George Zimmerman's legal fees after his recent acquittal in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin."  Now we are down to "might," but still implying the whole bill.

In the second sentence of the second paragraph, the story finally says, "... minus the fee that goes to his lawyers."  That's sort of like saying you are going to buy me a car, and then later on noting "except for the engine, transmission, suspension, steering, wheels, and seats."

The Orlando Sentinel version of the story, by Rene Stutzman, notes in the headline and first sentence that the request is for "$200K-$300K of his legal bills," properly implying that it's not the whole wad.  The second paragraph then says, "Because Zimmerman was acquitted, state law requires Florida to pay all his legal costs, minus the biggest one: the fee that goes to his lawyers."  Much better.

So this is a motion for costs, not attorneys' fees.  The Sentinel does go off the track at one point, though:

Several times in the months leading up to the trial, O'Mara said that defense funds were so low he might be forced to ask the judge to declare Zimmerman indigent, and thus, require the state to pay his legal bills. But that never happened.

This upcoming motion, however, would have the same effect.

Um, no.  Declaring Zimmerman indigent would have required a state-paid lawyer, as decided in another Florida case a few years back, though not necessarily the lawyer of Zimmerman's choice.  (Eric Menendez, FWIW, did get to keep the same lawyer after burning through his cash.)  A motion for costs, not attorneys fees, does not "have the same effect."

The Sentinel gets back on track explaining the motion.

It would be based on Florida Statute 939.06, which states that a defendant who has been acquitted is not liable for any costs associated with his case and, if he or she paid anything, they would be due a refund, if approved by a judge or clerk.

The money would come from the Judicial Administrative Commission, the state agency that pays the non-lawyer legal expenses of indigent defendants.

O'Mara said he would ask the judge to certify the costs he submits. He then expects the commission, which is commonly referred to as JAC, to challenge many.

"That's where the fight is," he said.

As for attorneys' fees ...

O'Mara has been paid nothing by Zimmerman, said the defense attorney who bills at a rate of $400 an hour, but he has kept billing records.

O'Mara gave a ballpark estimate of the number of hours he had worked on the case: 40 hours a week for 16 months.

At $400-an-hour, he would be owed slightly more than $1 million.

That does not include any of the work done by co-counsel Don West, who bills at $350 an hour, or O'Mara's partner, Lorna Truett.

The taxpayers of Florida are not in danger of paying any of that, and of course the lawyers are not likely to collect anything significant from Zimmerman.  The payoff for lawyers in a high-profile case with a shallow-pocketed defendant is in advertising.

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