Friday, August 30, 2013

A Wrinkle in the Zimmerman Case: Neighborhood Watcher’s Wife Pleads Guilty to Perjury

Photo: Seminole County Sheriff's Office
Prosecutors finally got a conviction in relation to George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. Sort of.

Zimmerman shot and killed Martin on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. On July 13 of the following year, a six-woman jury acquitted him, finding the facts too uncertain to conclude that his actions constituted second degree murder or manslaughter rather than self-defense. A furor ensued, inflamed by one of the jurors commenting that Zimmerman “got away with murder.”

But between the shooting and acquittal, something comparatively subtle yet interesting happened.

Loose Lips
On April 20, 2012, Shellie Zimmerman testified at a bond hearing for her neighborhood-watch-volunteer husband. She told the presiding judge that she and her spouse didn’t have much money at their disposal.

O'MARA [George Zimmerman’s attorney]: I discussed with you the pending motion to have your husband, George, declared indigent for cost, have I not? 

S. ZIMMERMAN: Yes, you have.

O'MARA: Are you of any financial means where you could assist in those costs?

S. ZIMMERMAN: Not that I'm aware of.

But law enforcement discovered that Mr. Zimmerman had, at the point of his wife’s testimony, received more than $100,000 in Internet donations. Recordings of jail telephone calls between the Zimmermans proved that the couple had discussed the donations at length. Prosecutors alleged that Mrs. Zimmerman deposited about $74,000 into her bank account shortly before the bond hearing. A considerable sum also allegedly found its way into Mrs. Zimmerman’s sister’s account.

The judge who handled the bond hearing found on June 3, 2012 that Mrs. Zimmerman had lied about her and her husband’s financial resources. Officers arrested her later that month. She, like her husband, bailed out of jail.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Zimmerman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor perjury for her bond-hearing fib. She received a year of probation and 100 hours of community service. She also formally apologized to the judge.

The Essence of Perjury
The perjury conviction seems appropriate in light of Shellie Zimmerman’s admission, both in and out of court, that she lied under oath.

That Mrs. Zimmerman lied while under oath, by itself, doesn’t actually mean she committed perjury. The essence of the offense is lying under oath, but not any old lie will suffice. The false statement has to be “material”—that is, relate to the subject of the proceeding.

A purpose of the Zimmerman bond hearing was to determine what an appropriate bail amount might be for her husband, which depended in part on the couple’s financial resources. Had Mrs. Zimmerman lied about, for example, her true hair color, she would’ve been in the clear. But she lied about finances, which were directly at issue.

For more about the George Zimmerman case, read The George Zimmerman Verdict: Murder, Manslaughter, and Self-Defense.