3L works with Zimmerman defense team

Published: November 5th, 2012

Category: News

By Felicia Holloman (3L)

Mike Panella (3L) has a motto: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9.

Earlier this year, Panella witnessed the intense media attention on the Trayvon Martin shooting, which unfolded into the George Zimmerman case. True to his motto, he became determined to be a part of Zimmerman’s defense team, headed by Mark O’Mara.

“When I first heard of the tragic events of Feb. 26th, 2012, I was appalled.  However, after I started learning that we may not have gotten the whole story initially, and saw the way Mark was handling this case, I knew I needed to be a part of it,” Panella said.

Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watch leader, shot and killed the unarmed teenager, who is black, on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder and is claiming self-defense. A Self-Defense/Immunity Hearing is expected in April 2013.

Over the course of a month, Panella sent certified letters, made numerous calls, and finally showed up in front of O’Mara’s Orlando office one Saturday evening for an impromptu interview. Less than a week later, he landed a summer internship.

But what was to be a summer internship became a year-long journey into one of the most talked about criminal cases in the United States. To continue working on Zimmerman’s case, Panella moved to Orlando with his wife to become a transient student at Florida A&M University for his last year of law school.

Panella is now part of an eight-person defense team including, in addition to O’Mara, several interns, a media consultant, and Defense Attorney Don West. Since joining, Panella had the opportunity to be a part of many strategic decisions, such as drafting both a motion for recusal, and ultimately a successful petition for writ of prohibition to the 5th District Court of Appeal.

“I remember some nights being in the office until 11 p.m. putting together the over 400-page appendix that accompanied our petition,” Panella said.

Zimmerman’s case, unlike most criminal cases, has the added complication of intense social and cultural components, which brings heightened media scrutiny.

“I have had a unique, inside opportunity to learn how powerful and, indeed in this case, how devastating an effect the media can have on the public perception of a defendant,” Panella said.

According to Panella, Zimmerman’s case is so unusual that the defense team sometimes “considers doing the opposite of a normal case.” Thus, an everyday request for discovery may include an in-depth analysis into repercussions, such as public records requests that might be forthcoming from the media.

“It is a real battle,” Panella said. Although there is concern for how the publicity will affect the selection of an impartial jury, Panella remains hopeful.

“I am in good company with the Supreme Court in thinking jurors have the ability to be impartial,” Panella said.

Despite the worries that accompany a high profile case, Panella feels fortunate to work for O’Mara, who is a specialist in his field.

“Mark has done an incredible job of incorporating all members of our small ‘team’ into the defense strategy. He has included me in many, if not most of the decisions we make,” Panella said.

The desire to work on Zimmerman’s case emanated from Panella’s life-long passion for the law and the unique ability a lawyer has to protect the innocent. Panella credits a change in his perception of criminal defense to the federal public defenders he spoke to before attending law school.

“It was giving a voice to the voiceless, and seeing a situation in a different light – that many times you, as the lawyer, are the only thing that stands between your client and an overbearing government,” Panella said.

Since his first year of law school, Panella devoted much of his time to working with criminal defense attorneys in Gainesville. According to Panella, these experiences helped to develop his passion.

As for what the future may bring, Panella hopes to see Zimmerman’s case to the end and use the knowledge he gained from the experience to continue practicing criminal defense after graduation.

“If I can be a part of helping to bring this thing to a peaceful resolution, then this case has absolutely solidified my desire to honestly help those who may not be in the position to defend themselves.”