The Sunshine State is no stranger to sensational court cases.
There was six weeks of Casey Anthony courtroom drama in 2011. Then who can forget Judge Larry Seidlin crying over the fate of Anna Nicole Smith's corpse in 2007?
The State of Florida v. George Zimmerman, which started jury selection this week in Sanford, Fla., has the makings of another high-profile cliffhanger.
Zimmerman, a volunteer crime watchman in his Sanford neighborhood, is accused of profiling, pursuing and fatally shooting unarmed Trayvon Martin, 17, in February 2012. He has pleaded not guilty, saying he shot in self-defense when Martin attacked him.
Presiding over the case is Debra S. Nelson, described by defense attorneys and others as a no-nonsense jurist.
“She doesn’t play games,” Orlando criminal defense attorney Luis F. Calderon told Yahoo News. “She doesn’t come across as mean, but she’s pretty firm in her rulings.”
Calderon says Nelson is a stickler for schedules.
“Once she has it set in her mind and on her calendar, then it better be done by that day,” Calderon said.
Nelson, who is not granting interviews, has been on the bench for 14 years, having been appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999. The 59-year-old Florida native earned her law degree from the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
She is the third judge assigned to the case. Nelson was randomly appointed when an appeals court ordered Kenneth Lester to recuse himself after he portrayed Zimmerman as a manipulator in a bond ruling last summer. The first judge, Jessica Recksiedler, stepped aside due to a conflict of interest.
Zimmerman, who is of mixed heritage and identifies himself as Hispanic, was licensed to carry a handgun when he shot Martin, who was black. The incident has polarized the country, with some calling the killing a hate crime. It has also brought scrutiny to Florida’s concealed gun law.
“The judge certainly knows that her decisions will be looked at very closely,” says Charles D. Weisselberg, an associate dean at UC Berkeley School of Law. “The rulings that she makes during the trial and the way she comports herself during the trial will be commented upon and will be part of the public’s perception on whether or not the trial was fair.”
In 2012, defense attorneys and prosecutors gave Nelson a 3.67 rating (on a 5-point scale) in the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ annual judicial poll.
“Being middle of the road is a good thing sometimes,” said Calderon, the association’s president. “It shows she’s pretty impartial and has good legal knowledge.”
The Orlando Sentinel described Nelson’s toughness by noting that she once sentenced a robber to 27 years in prison after he rejected a 20-year deal from a prosecutor.
“You don’t mess around with her,” attorney Isadore Hyde Jr. told the newspaper.
Millions will soon get to see for themselves. The trial, which will be televised and streamed live on the Internet, could last a month.
“Do I have that sense that she would be swept up in the media storm? No. But I’ve been wrong before,” Calderon said.