New judge in Zimmerman case no ‘soft touch,’ lawyer says

Posted at 8:52 PM, Apr 18, 2012
and last updated 2012-04-18 20:52:16-04

By the CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) — The judge who will take over the case of a Florida man accused of shooting an unarmed teenager has high ratings from defense lawyers but isn’t known as a “soft touch,” one Florida attorney said Wednesday.

Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. will start by presiding over a bond hearing for George Zimmerman on Friday. Lester was assigned the intensely scrutinized case Wednesday afternoon after the recusal of Judge Jessica Recksiedler, who had been asked to step aside by Zimmerman’s lawyer.

“He’s a great judge,” Orlando lawyer Diana Tennis told CNN sister network HLN. “He’s been on the bench a really long time. He’s very no-nonsense. He’s a real fast talker, very efficient, gets the cases in and out.”

Tennis said Lester is “not known as a soft touch” but has a reputation for listening to both sides of a case.

“I would definitely not call him a huge friend to the defense particularly, but he’s very fair if you go in and do the right thing,” she said.

Lester has been a judge since 1996 and has previously handled juvenile, probate and mental health cases. A 2011 poll by the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers rated him the top judge in Seminole County for legal knowledge and diligence.

He had the second-highest overall score among Seminole County circuit judges in that survey, which also ranked the jurists for impartiality, freedom from bias and demeanor.

Lester has practiced law since 1980, after getting his legal education at the University of Florida. He and his wife have been married 29 years and have two children, and he teaches wrestling on the side, Seminole County court spokeswoman Michelle Kennedy said.

He’ll be in a national spotlight when he takes on the case of Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. The 17-year-old was shot to death February 26 while walking through the Sanford, Florida, community where Zimmerman, 28, served as a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Martin was unarmed, but Zimmerman told police the teen was beating him. Sanford police decided not to immediately bring charges against Zimmerman, sparking protests and a furious debate about race, guns and a Florida law that allows residents to use deadly force in public without first retreating from a confrontation. Martin was African-American; Zimmerman is Hispanic.

Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, had asked Recksiedler to step aside because her husband is a law partner of Mark NeJame, an Orlando lawyer and CNN legal analyst. Recksiedler concluded that the arguments individually were “legally insufficient” to force her recusal, but the “totality of the circumstances” made her decide to hand the case to another judge.

NeJame said Wednesday that Lester was a law school classmate he has known “for 35 years, probably.”

“He’s just smart, measured, gets it, sees both sides of it,” he told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.” He said Lester “doesn’t miss a trick,” and “his brain is as good as anybody I know.”

“He’s not going to let anything get by him,” NeJame said. “He’s going to give both sides an absolute fair hearing whenever required, and give an absolute fair trial throughout this matter.”

CNN’s Matt Smith contributed to this report.