Last week, defense attorney Mark O’Mara -- best known as the man who kept George Zimmerman out of prison -- once again walked in front of television cameras to talk about a racially charged shooting and to stand up for the rights of a client.
An Ohio grand jury had just indicted a white University of Cincinnati police officer for murder for shooting an unarmed black driver. Tensions had been high. The officer claimed self-defense. Many in the black community called for a conviction.
But the Florida-based attorney and CNN legal analyst wasn’t in Cincinnati to defend the officer, Ray Tensing.
O’Mara was there to represent the family of the driver, Samuel DuBose.
Many African Americans -- seeing O’Mara praise the prosecution and denounce DuBose’s July 19 shooting -- had to do a double-take as one of the most prominent figures in the nation’s ongoing racial drama reappeared in what was, to them, a surprising new role.
“I carry this weird baggage with me, because I represented the guy who killed Trayvon, so I’m ‘poisoned’ or ‘sullied’ by that,” O’Mara told the Los Angeles Times in an interview this week. But when it comes to seeking justice, O’Mara said, “Strange enough, those who are listening in the black community understand that I make sense.”
In 2013, O’Mara defended Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman from a murder charge for shooting unarmed black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during a struggle.
For weeks, O’Mara’s reddish complexion and low-key demeanor was featured daily on TV sets around the nation as he waged a battle for Zimmerman’s innocence by arguing Zimmerman had acted in self-defense.
The jury’s not-guilty verdict brought deep pain to many black Americans. The decision sparked widespread protests and presaged the nation’s current climate of racial unrest and dissatisfaction with the justice system.
O’Mara’s appearance in Cincinnati last week -- to play a different part in a similar script -- revealed that the work he did on his most famous case remains lodged deep in the minds of many African Americans.
“Mark O’Mara being the family attorney for #SamDubose family is...idk [I don’t know],” comedian Felonius Munk wrote on Twitter last week, earning more than 100 retweets. “just doesn’t sit quite right with me after he represented Zimmerman.”
“Mark O’mara, the guy who defended George Zimmerman, is #SamDubose’s family attorney? someone explain for me,” another user said.
A third added, defiantly: “Mark O’Mara, you still have Trayvon Martin’s blood on your hands. We won’t forget that. Ever. You better wage war for #SamDubose’s justice.”
Many attorneys often change hats, whether switching career paths from prosecution to defense, to defending both white and black defendants in a variety of cases.
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the famed defense attorney known for winning an acquittal for O.J. Simpson and other high-profile black defendants, also raised eyebrows when he represented a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, attacked by black assailants during the 1992 L.A. riots.
O’Mara began his career as a prosecutor in Seminole County in the early 1980s before switching to defense. The Florida State University College of Law graduate has since accumulated more than three decades of experiences defending a melange of defendants in Florida, many of them black. He has called for criminal justice reforms including the end of mandatory minimum sentences.
O’Mara recently defended a Florida man, Sean Grant, who was shot and wounded by an officer in DeLand after police alleged he stole a sandwich and tried to run over police with his car in October 2013. Grant was found not guilty of aggravated assault, and now O’Mara is suing the police on his behalf.
“White cop, black kid,” O’Mara said.
In the Cincinnati case, O’Mara said DuBose’s family eventually plans to file a lawsuit to seek damages, answers and accountability for DuBose’s death, though the family will first have to go to probate court to sort out DuBose’s estate.
Until that happens, O’Mara is acting as a guardian of DuBose’s character outside the courtroom, as he had once done for George Zimmerman against a tide of public anger. In his news conference last week, O’Mara emphasized that DuBose was not a violent person.
“My concern is that they [officials] tend to denigrate or attack the victim – it’s already happened a bit already,” O’Mara told The Times.
O’Mara noted that body camera footage of the officers accompanying Tensing appeared to show them initially supporting Tensing’s claim that DuBose was pulling away and dragging Tensing when the officer opened fire.
“They were certainly willing to follow up their brother in blue, and if there wasn’t a video, there definitely wouldn’t be an indictment,” O’Mara said.
Cincinnati officials said the officers later gave formal sworn statements on what, if anything, they had witnessed. The prosecutor said there was “confusion” in an initial incident report that implied they saw Tensing being dragged when they did not.
O’Mara says he was contacted two weeks ago by DuBose’s sister, who he said liked his appearances as a commentator on CNN.
She’s apparently not alone. A friend of O’Mara’s, Orlando attorney Joe Flood, says that now, after the Zimmerman trial, whenever he and O’Mara go out in public, O’Mara is constantly approached for pictures.
“Who do you think would be the people who would least like him or be drawn to him?” Flood asked. “The African American community. The deference and respect is unbelievable. Everywhere we go, there are constantly African American people coming up to him, wanting to get their picture next to him, saying he’s the best lawyer they’ve ever seen.
“I wouldn’t believe it, but I experience it all the time,” Flood added. “I’m frequently the guy holding the cellphone, taking the picture.”
In Florida’s legal community, O’Mara remains deeply respected as a hard worker with a knack for managing the media.
“The judges are very impressed with him,” said Jim Vickaryous, a Lake Mary, Fla., attorney and the current president of the Seminole County Bar Assn. “He doesn’t win all his cases, but he wins a lot of them, because he’s darned good at what he does.”
Vickaryous added: “When I think of Mark, I think of a gentleman lawyer. He’s a guy, you could disagree with him, but you’ll still like him at the end of the day. He’s very thoughtful in the way he tries to persuade.”
Clayton D. Simmons, a retired circuit judge who handled some of O’Mara’s cases, said that within the last six months or so, O’Mara has become “very committed to defending victims’ rights.”
“This isn’t the only case like this he’s taken on,” Simmons said of the Cincinnati shooting. “He’s taken on other victims’ rights cases too. He’s the real deal.”
O’Mara said that after more than 30 years of legal experience, he knows firsthand that the justice system weighs more heavily on black Americans.
“I see it in my daily practice when guys come in to me and tell me about their police experiences,” O’Mara told The Times. “This has been my pedigree long before Zimmerman.”
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