Editor’s note: Mark NeJame is a CNN/HLN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney. He is the owner and senior partner of NeJame Law. He is the former attorney for George and Cindy Anthony, parents of Casey Anthony. He is on Twitter.
Judge Debra Nelson, the presiding judge in the George Zimmerman prosecution, has ruled and run her courtroom with an iron gavel. I've agreed with most of her thoughtful rulings.
Many Zimmerman supporters have been critical of her, believing that her pre-trial rulings and an order allowing Zimmerman's five prior dispatch calls to be admitted reflected a pro-prosecution bias. However, she has ruled in favor of the defense with a most crucial ruling granting the defense's motion to keep out the state's audio expert who would have testified that it was Trayvon Martin screaming for help on the 911 tape before he was killed. That expert testimony was expected to be a cornerstone of the State's case.
I've heard and read that many believe she has been a tough judge — maybe too tough. I believe that whenever she comes into the courtroom, she is simply extremely well-prepared each time.
I've been endlessly impressed with her consistent knowledge of the facts and applicable law. I've seen no rash rulings. With all of its social issues and media attention, the Zimmerman case could have easily unraveled with a lesser judge. Judge Nelson has maintained the requisite control of her courtroom to assure that it would not.
She has kept the attorneys in check, has not allowed speaking objections, started timely, been in control of the tempo and flow of her courtroom, and let everyone know who was in charge.
As such, I am disappointed that Judge Nelson didn't send a much-needed message (that I wish she would have) when prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel advised she wasn't coming back to court the following day in the first day of proceedings.
On June 26 and 27, Jeantel was on the witness stand in the Zimmerman prosecution. She is the 19-year-old high school student who was speaking on the phone with Martin moments before his fatal encounter with Zimmerman. She endured two days of grueling cross examination by the defense and has been the subject of much discussion and analysis.
Like the case itself, many seem polarized regarding her testimony. I am appalled at some of the personal comments made about her and the insensitivity to some cultural distinctions that exist with her and many courtroom observers. However, everyone must adhere to a common standard for respect of judicial authority.
Jeantel's rawness when testifying has drawn both critics and supporters. My issue isn't about that. My concern is that she acted disrespectful and wasn't called out by the judge for her comment that she wasn't coming back to court the next day.
I've had many clients who come from a very similar background as Jeantel and few need to be told how to behave in court. Respect for the institution is mandatory. Telling anyone that you are not coming back when under court order requires a judicial admonition.
As it turned out, Jeantel did return for a second day of testimony.
But this case is being viewed around the country and the world. The only thing that allows our court system to work is that the people allow it to do so. If a message is sent that one can say and act as he or she wants, the institution is challenged and the door is open for others to act similarly.
An opportunity was lost, I believe, for Judge Nelson to simply and sternly advise Jeantel, like she has masterfully done to all others, that it's the judge's courtroom, and only she enforces the rules and not anybody else. Such a simple admonition would have sent the message to anyone watching — regardless of age, social background or any other factor — that respect for the authority of the judge must be followed by everyone at all times.
One can dislike the lawyers, the law and even the judge. However, respect for the institution must be maintained at all times if we are to have a judicial system that works. I think Judge Nelson has been doing a superb job, but I think an opportunity was lost to have a valuable lesson sent to others who would have benefited well from the firmness we have otherwise seen.