George Zimmerman's attorneys said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon that they will no longer be representing him. The attorneys claim that Zimmerman repeatedly rebuffed their legal advice, and that they have now lost contact with him.
"As of now we are withdrawing as counsel for Mr. Zimmerman," Craig Sonner, one of his attorneys, told reporters outside the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Fla. "We've lost contact with him. Up to this point, we've had contact with him every day. He's gone on his own. I'm not sure what he's doing or who he's talking to, but at this point we're withdrawing as counsel. If he wants us to come back as counsel, he will contact us."
Sonner said that he has never met Zimmerman in person, and that their conversations have all taken place via telephone.
Zimmerman said he killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, on Feb. 26 in the gated community where the girlfriend of the teenager's father lived in Sanford. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member, called 911 and told a police dispatcher that Martin, who was returning from a trip to a nearby convenience store, "looked suspicious." After an altercation, Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest. He told the local police that he shot Martin in self defense, and was not arrested or charged.
Protesters around the country have held rallies calling for Zimmerman's arrest, and the Sanford police department has been the focus of withering criticism for its handling of the initial investigation. The case has become a flashpoint in the national debates over racial profiling and gun control laws. Martin was black. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is Peruvian.
Sonner said that he still believed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, which Zimmerman and his surrogates have maintained since the shooting. "Nothing that I've said about him or this case has changed in any way," Sonner said.
Attorney Hal Uhrig said that Zimmerman had stopped responding to their phone calls, and that they had a "pretty good idea" of where he was, while Sonner maintained that Zimmerman was "still in the United States." Last week, Zimmerman's lawyers said their client was ready to surrender if charged with a crime.
"George Zimmerman in our opinion ... is not doing well emotionally, probably suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, we understand from others that he may have lost a lot of weight," Uhrig said. "Our concern is that for him to do this ... to handle it this way suggests that he may not be in complete control of what's going on. We're concerned for his emotional and physical safety."
Zimmerman has been in hiding for weeks over concerns that he is in physical danger. A fringe group put out a $10,000 bounty on his head, which drew a swift rebuke from activists who were aiming to draw attention the Martin case.
Sonner said that he did not believe that Zimmerman would harm himself or flee the country.
Uhrig said that last Thursday, he and Sonner helped George Zimmerman's father, Robert Zimmerman, set up a website to solicit donations for George's legal defense and living expenses. They said that they had not been able to reach Zimmerman on Sunday, the day before the site was to go live. The site's address, zimmermandefense.com, had been made available to news outlets.
"On Sunday we lost track of George in that he wouldn't return our phone calls, and we couldn't get hold of him," Uhrig said. "We had no reason at that time to believe that it was anything suspect."
But Zimmerman set up another website that was different from the one set up by his attorneys and his father.
"On Monday we began fielding questions ... 'Did we know anything about [therealgeorgezimmerman.com] website?' And our initial response was, 'Well, that's probably bogus, we don't know anything about that.' And we started making inquiries and, frankly, confirmed that he, through friends or family, had in fact set that site up and it was legitimate. We immediately began telling the media, disregard the earlier website we gave you that we had set up. Go for the one we now know that he set up."
"We were happy enough with that, but disturbed that he had not communicated with us," Uhrig said.
The attorneys said that Zimmerman repeatedly ignored their legal advice.
"We learned that he had called Sean Hannity of Fox News directly -- not through us," Uhrig said. "We believe that he spoke directly with Sean off the record and [Hannity's] not even willing to tell us what our client told him."
Uhrig said the "final straw" was Zimmerman's attempt to set up a meeting with the special prosecutor on the case, Angela Corey. But Uhrig said that Zimmerman had contacted the special prosecutor directly to come in to speak with them, as well. "We were a bit astonished and had some conversation back and forth with the prosecutor's office," Uhrig said. "They told us what we expected, '[that they] were not going to talk to a criminal or [defendant] without counsel.'"
Uhrig said that Zimmerman told officials at the prosecutor's office that Uhrig and Sonner were not his lawyers, but "his legal advisers."
As the press conference went on, Uhrig engaged in several testy exchanges with reporters, alternately criticizing the news media's coverage of the case and defending the state's Stand Your Ground law. "The gun law is a good law because it gives honest citizens the right to carry a weapon," Uhrig said.
Uhrig was also derisive of civil rights activists, whom he said were attempting to profit from the case, and mocked Rep. Corrine Brown, who represents Sanford in Congress and has been calling for Zimmerman's prosecution.
On Monday, the special prosecutor said that she would not convene a grand jury in the case, which effectively rules out murder charges in the case, as only grand juries can issue murder charges in the state of Florida. Zimmerman can still be charged with manslaughter and other crimes for his role in the shooting.
Trayvon Martin's parents and their attorney appeared on CNN tonight to discuss the latest developments in the case, including the special prosecutor's announcement that new details about the case will be made public in the next 72 hours.
"We're encouraged, but we have a lot of anxiety," Benjamin Crump, the attorney, told Piers Morgan. "No one has any idea where the killer of Trayvon Martin is."
Tracy Martin,Trayvon's father, said he believed that Zimmerman was a flight risk. "He definitely needs to be contained," he said.
Alan Dershowitz, the legal scholar and criminal attorney, also appeared on the show, and said he was "disturbed" by the conduct of Zimmerman's former attorneys. Dershowitz said they may have damaged his defense by expounding on his state of mind, and they may possibly have violated attorney-client privilege. "All they had to do was quietly say that 'we're no longer representing [Zimmerman] and our role in the case is over.'"
Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, attorney Hal Uhrig was not fully identified.