Zimmerman trial judge is no-nonsense

7:13 AM, Jul 5, 2013   |    comments
Judge Debra Nelson instructs the jury to disregard a portion of testimony from state's witness and Sanford police officer Chris Serino, from the previous day, at the George Zimmerman trial in Seminole Circuit Court on July 2 in Sanford, Fla. (Photo: Joe Burbank, AP)
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SANFORD, FL (USATODAY.com) -- When a 39-year-old woman snatched a baby from a Florida hospital in 2008, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson wasn't swayed by the fact that the child was missing for only about an hour. She sentenced the kidnapper to 30 years in prison.

Nelson is in the spotlight again as the presiding judge in one of America's most controversial murder cases: the killing of Trayvon Martin. Her reputation among some as a tough-on-defendants judge may be transformed as she balances both sides of the emotionally charged debate about why George Zimmerman fatally shot the 17-year-old.

"Lawyers appearing before her know that her reputation is to be a law-oriented, no-nonsense judge," said Daniel Gerber an Orlando defense attorney who argued a civil case before Nelson. "We know not to cross that line."

The 59-year-old judge has lived up to Gerber's view of her throughout Zimmerman's trial by fairly dishing out orders to prosecutors and defense attorneys. Nelson often asks lawyers to get to the point and stay on subject.

Zimmerman, 29, is on trial for second-degree murder for the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon. Zimmerman, who has pleaded not guilty, has said he acted in self-defense after he was attacked. Trayvon's death and the speculation that Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, profiled, followed and murdered him sparked racial controversy and protests around the country last year. Zimmerman faces life in prison if convicted but has maintained that race did not factor into his actions.

The nationally televised trial that some estimated could have lasted two months is on track to be about three weeks long.

"Don't no, no, no me either," Nelson once said to Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, as O'Mara argued that the parents of his client be allowed to remain in court. Nelson, honoring a prosecution request, ordered Zimmerman's family to leave the courtroom at the start of trial testimony because the members are potential witnesses.

Nelson, always in a black simple robe for court, doesn't mind working weekends and has already scheduled the Zimmerman trial to resume on July 5, choosing not to take a long holiday weekend. She was assigned the case in August 2012 after one judge stepped down because of a conflict of interest and another was removed.

"She is very talented and has a wide degree of knowledge and experience," said Suzan Abramson, an Orlando attorney who used to work with Nelson.

Gerber agreed and said Nelson is a cautious judge who regards rules and regulations and likes to see lawyers working together to come to a conclusion.

A woman with broad legal experience, Nelson earned a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of South Florida in 1975 and a law degree from South Texas College of Law in 1979. She did a brief stint at the state attorney's office in Broward County, Fla. She also worked for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee, and at Boroughs, Grimm, Bennett & Griffin, P.A., a commercial litigation practice.

For seven years, Nelson ran her own practice in Orlando that handled several issues including contract disputes, family law, and class action lawsuits. In 1999, she was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. In 2013, Nelson won the Mize-Dickey Outstanding Jurist Award which goes to judges who exemplify the highest standards of integrity, impartiality and intellect.

Among some lawyers, however, Nelson has a reputation for siding with the prosecution.

"She will make certain rulings that may be more favorable to the prosecution," said Kimberly Priest Johnson, a Dallas-based federal criminal defense lawyer.

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