Fears are growing over the wellbeing of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, after his lawyers announced that they have decided to resign, having lost all contact with him.
Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, the attorneys who have represented Zimmerman since the case exploded onto the national stage, said they had no idea where their former client now was, and feared he was “emotionally crippled” by the extraordinary pressures of the case.
In a bizarre, early-evening press conference outside Seminole County Courthouse in central Sanford, the duo announced that they were unable to continue acting on behalf of a client whose behaviour has become increasingly erratic and who they believe may be suffering from PTSD.
“He’s gone on his own. I’m not sure what he’s doing, or who he’s talking to,” said Sonner, who said his last contact with Zimmerman had been on Sunday. “I’ve lost count of how many messages we’ve sent him. But whenever we call, the phone goes to voicemail.”
The 27-year-old neighbourhood watch volunteer, who shot Martin in a gated community in late February, has been forced out of his home and has not returned to work since the incident became a national talking point. A special prosecutor brought in to review the case said last night that she will announce whether he should face criminal charges over the killing by the close of play on Friday.
In the last 48 hours, Sonner and Uhrig revealed that they have been astounded and concerned by Zimmerman’s behaviour. On Monday, he launched a strange personal fundraising website, apparently without warning them, and yesterday, he telephoned Sean Hannity, a right-wing pundit for Fox News for an “off the record” conversation, again without seeking their say-so.
They believe he has spent too long holed-up in hiding, watching wall-to-wall coverage of the case, which sparked worldwide debate. They are of the opinion that the experience of becoming an overnight hate figure has left him psychologically scarred and in need of professional counselling.
“This has been a terribly corrosive process,” said Uhrig. “George Zimmerman is not doing well emotionally, is probably suffering PTSD, and may also have lost a lot of weight... He may not be in complete control of what’s going on. We are concerned for his emotional and physical safety.”
“Sadly, he can’t get in car to drive to psychologist. There’s a bounty on his head. He probably watches more of the media coverage of this than he should. He’s emotionally alone, and you might even say emotionally crippled.”
The final straw which prompted them to quit appears to have occurred on Wednesday when Zimmerman decided to personally telephone the special prosecutor Angela Corey’s office, asking to discuss the case. She declined to speak with him, since prosecutors are forbidden from conversing with potential defendants without their lawyers present.
“As a defence attorney, I can’t have my client simply going off to talk to the prosecutor,” said Uhrig. “After two days of not speaking with him, I just can’t carry on. It wouldn’t be ethical for me to carry on holding myself out as his attorney when he won’t return calls, won’t return emails, won’t return texts, when I know his phone is working.”
Uhrig and Sonner’s resignation for the time being leaves Zimmerman without legal counsel. His exact location is unknown to anyone except perhaps his father and brother. Uhrig insists that he remained in the USA, but added: “For those engaged in the late easter egg hunt looking for him, he’s not in Florida. It’s a lot further away than that.”
Though they are no longer Zimmerman’s lawyers, Uhrig and Sonner, who had agreed to act pro bono until such time as charges were filed, said that they remain convinced of his innocence of any criminal offence.
They support his claim to have shot Martin in self-defence, after being attacked, and argue that he's therefore protected by Florida’s now-notorious “Stand Your Ground” law, which in a conflict situation allows someone who did not strike the first blow to use lethal force if they believe their safety is in immediate danger.
The news of their resignation has nonetheless caused concern among Martin’s relatives, who say they are worried about Zimmerman’s state-of-mind and believe he may attempt to flee the country before charges are announced on Friday.
“The family is deeply worried that George Zimmerman is currently unaccounted for, and concerned that he could present a flight risk,” said their attorney last night.