NEW YORK, April 11 (Reuters) - From nearly every corner of
the blogosphere to evening and morning talk shows, George
Zimmerman's former lawyers have been lampooned for their press conference performance on Tuesday afternoon, when they announced
they were dropping Trayvon Martin's shooter as a client. But Hal
Uhrig and Craig Sonner may have committed much more than bad TV.
Four law professors who specialize in legal ethics said that the
Orlando criminal defense lawyers may have violated Florida's
rules governing lawyers' professional conduct.
Under the Florida rules, Uhrig and Sonner were within their
rights to withdraw from representing Zimmerman. A lawyer may
withdraw, according to the attorney-client relationship provisions, if a "client insists upon taking action that the
lawyer considers repugnant, imprudent, or with which the lawyer
has a fundamental disagreement." Uhrig and Sonner said Zimmerman
had stopped taking their phone calls and reached out to the
media and the prosecutor in the case without their permission,
which would appear to fall under the conditions for withdrawal.
But holding a press conference to discuss their
representation of Zimmernan is out of bounds, said Stephen
Gillers of New York University School of Law. Under Florida rules, with a handful of exceptions, a lawyer is instructed not
to "reveal information relating to the representation" of a
Uhrig said at the press conference that he and Sonner were
not revealing any information protected by the attorney-client
privilege. But that doesn't matter, according to Gillers, who
called the press conference "professional suicide."
"What's protected is information, not just communications,"
During the press conference, Uhrig and Sonner disclosed that
Zimmerman had taken the unusual step of personally reaching out
to Angela Corey, the special prosecutor who has been appointed
to handle the Feb. 26 killing of the 17-year-old Martin. Uhrig
also addressed his client's seemingly erratic behavior,
describing Zimmerman as "emotionally crippled by the virtue of
the pressure of this case."
Such disclosures arguably could jeopardize Zimmerman's
defense and his shot at a fair trial, according to Anthony
Alfieri of the University of Miami School of Law. Under
Florida's rules of profession conduct, Alfieri said, a lawyer
may withdraw from representing a client only if the withdrawal
can be "accomplished without material adverse effect on the
interests of the client."
"By publicly calling into question his mental state you are,
I think, seriously jeopardizing a fair trial guarantee because
you are creating the substantial possibility of prejudice," said
Of course, it's possible that Uhrig and Sonner believed
their press conference was in Zimmerman's interest. A lawyer may
speak to the media to combat negative publicity as long as the
client offers implicit or explicit authority to do so, said Amy
Mashburn, of the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
It's not clear, however, that Zimmerman gave his now-former
lawyers that permission.
"What's troubling about this situation is that it appears
they're speaking by their own admission without any direct
authority from the client," said Mashburn.
Both Mashburn and Gillers said that the press conference
could trigger an investigation into the lawyers by the Florida
In an interview, Sonner said that he and Uhrig did the right
"Nothing was discussed that wasn't already in the media," he
said. "But the media chose to ignore the facts that supported
his self-defense. In a last effort to help George, we put all
the facts out there."
Uhrig did not return a message seeking comment.
(Updated to add comment from Sonner.)
(Reporting by Andrew Longstreth)
Follow Andrew on Twitter: @alongstreth1
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