The murder prosecution of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin marshaled decades of legal experience on both sides of the courtroom.
Leading the defense was Mark O'Mara of Orlando's O'Mara Law Group. For the government, three longtime assistant state attorneys, including Bernardo de la Rionda, would try to convince the jury to hold Zimmerman accountable for the February 2012 shooting death of the unarmed teenager.
Zimmerman hired O'Mara in April 2012, shortly before the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer surrendered to authorities. O'Mara brought in Don West, formerly of the federal public defender's office for the Middle District of Florida in Orlando.
Colleagues said O'Mara and West were thought of highly within the criminal defense bar. William Wade, a solo practitioner in Milton, Fla., and vice president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense lawyers, said they were known as "absolutely superb lawyers” well before the Zimmerman case. That they were brought in to handle the case was a testament to their reputation, he said.
Adam Reiss, a solo practitioner in Orlando, described the two defense lawyers as "hard-working, competent, diligent, thoughtful, well-prepared, respected [and] ethical."
After earning his J.D. from the Florida State University College of Law in 1982, O'Mara spent two years as an assistant state attorney in Seminole County. Today he runs his small firm in Orlando—the firm's website lists one other attorney, an associate—that specializes in criminal and family law.
The Zimmerman trial wasn't O'Mara's first foray into high-profile litigation. During the early 2000s, he defended Shamir Suber, who was charged with killing a 20-year-old woman whose car he rammed during a high-speed police chase. Suber was found guilty of DUI manslaughter, a lesser crime than the second-degree murder charge that state prosecutors brought against him, according to reports.
In 2011, O'Mara provided television comments during the trial of Casey Anthony, a Florida woman who was found not guilty of charges that she murdered her 2 -year-old daughter.
Michael Snure of Snure & Ponall in Winter Park, Fla., said that except for the two years O'Mara spent as a prosecutor, most of his career had been in small practice, doing a mix of criminal defense and divorce and other domestic relations cases.
"I think that he has certainly developed a certain style you saw on TV," said Snure, who had observed O'Mara in action in court on numerous occasions. "He's more diplomatic than some, he's very accommodating. It goes without saying that he's skilled in the craft."
West, who earned his law degree in 1980 from the University at Buffalo Law School at the State University of New York, also spent most of his career in private practice handling criminal defense cases. Snure, who also knows West and was familiar with his work, said that he tended to handle "big cases"—homicides and home invasions as opposed to misdemeanors. West joined the federal public defender office several years ago, Snure said.
"There was nothing about the technical elements and the craft and the art of defending that was going to get past him," Snure said. "He's a supreme strategist—he's very cerebral, and I thought he added a lot to that case." Snure described West as soft spoken, deliberate and "serious as serious gets."
According to published reports, West's former clients included Lou Pearlman, who promoted a series of boy bands including Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync before being charged with fraud in 2007. At the time, West was with the federal public defender's office. West and O'Mara could not be reached for comment.
In another high-profile matter during the late 1990s, West represented Joseph Spaziano, a Florida death row inmate who was granted a new trial in 1996, 20 years after he was convicted of murder. Spaziano pleaded no-contest to charges related to the slaying and, according to local media reporters, received a 23-year prison term, which represented the time he had already spent in jail. West was tapped on several occasions to handle death penalty cases in Florida and Puerto Rico.
For their part, the prosecutors who took Zimmerman to trial had decades of experience before juries in violent crime cases. That experience, however, didn't translate to a win for the government. The six-woman jury on Saturday night returned a not-guilty verdict.
“He was acting like a cop when he didn't have the power. We try cases to win. Hope we bring justice to the table," De la Rionda, a member of the Florida bar since 1983, told ABC News following the verdict. "In this case, we're disappointed. We thought the evidence was there."
The trial team included Rionda, John Guy and Richard Mantei. Angela Corey, the state attorney for the Fourth Judicial District, based in Jacksonville, led the investigation. Guy joined the state bar in 1993 and Mantei in 1997. Corey was admitted in 1980.
Mantei's earlier cases included the prosecution of Jacksonville Jaguars player Khalif Barnes on a drunk-driving charge and the case against a woman who shook to death her 3-month-old baby who’d interrupted her playing of a computer game. The woman, Alexandra Tobias, pleaded guilty in 2010 to second-degree murder.
In 1993, the year that he passed the bar examination, Guy took a job as an assistant state attorney in Jacksonville. He is now listed as an adjunct professor at the for-profit Florida Coastal School of Law.
In 2010, FBI officials in Jacksonville awarded de la Rionda a Community Leadership Award for his longtime service as a prosecutor. At the time, de la Rionda, with more than two decades' experience, had tried 250 cases—including 67 homicide prosecutions. De la Rionda was lead counsel in five homicide trials between 2009 and 2010, the FBI said.
"Both in and out of the courtroom, Mr. de la Rionda is a dynamic and powerful communicator who is humble and approachable," the FBI said. "The citizens of northeast Florida are the beneficiaries of the integrity and selflessness demonstrated throughout his career."
In March 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott assigned Angela Corey to the Martin investigation. Corey earned her J.D. from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
In 1981, she joined the state attorney's office in Jacksonville—where she now is state attorney—but was fired in 2006 by her boss Harry Shorstein after she announced her intention to run to replace him as state attorney. She was then hired by the state attorney for the Seventh Judicial District, also in northeast Florida. In 2008, Corey was elected state attorney in Jacksonville.
One of Corey's most controversial cases came in 2011, when the state indicted 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez for first-degree murder in the death of his 2-year-old brother. At the time, Fernandez was the youngest person indicted for murder in Jacksonville. In February, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and will remain in juvenile jail until his 19th birthday.
In a report by The Florida Times-Union, Henry Coxe III, an attorney on Fernandez's defense team, criticized Corey for her harsh prosecution of the pre-teen.
"Don’t forget you’re indicting a 12-year-old for first-degree murder when you, the state, knows he didn’t intentionally kill his brother," Coxe said in the published report. "What are you thinking?"
But Corey defended the prosecution as meritorious, saying that the plea agreement would help Fernandez get the help he needed. "This was not an accident," Corey said. "It was a deliberate act."
After the Zimmerman verdict was reached, Corey defended her decision to bring the second-degree murder charge. "We charged what we believed we could prove," she said, according to the Associated Press.