SANFORD, Fla. - The new judge in the George Zimmerman murder case will be Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr., who has been on the bench 15 years.
The case passed to him Wednesday, but not before things got a bit complicated.
It was originally assigned to Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler, but she recused herself Wednesday after Zimmerman's attorney asked her to step aside because of a possible conflict of interest: Her husband is the law partner of Mark NeJame, who has been hired to comment on the case for CNN.
All criminal cases in Seminole County are assigned by chance, based on a rotation system. Next up in that rotation was Circuit Judge John Galluzzo. He, though, could not accept the case because he formerly practiced law with Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara.
O'Mara is also the godfather of one of Galluzzo's four children.
So Galluzzo stepped aside, passing the case to the next judge in the rotation: Lester.
He has already made plans to preside at Zimmerman's bond hearing Friday morning in Recksiedler's courtroom, 5D at the Seminole Criminal Justice Center.
Dozens of news organizations are expected to be there. Zimmerman's case has become a cause celebre and one of the most racially divisive in the country.
He shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, on Feb. 26 as the teenager walked through Zimmerman's Sanford neighborhood. Critics accused Zimmerman of racial profiling and Sanford police of botching their investigation.
When police did not immediately arrest him, protesters took to the streets in cities across the country.
Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, the state attorney in Jacksonville, ordered Zimmerman's arrest April 11 on a charge of second-degree murder.
Lester, 58, has been a judge since 1997. He got the job the hard way: He ran against an incumbent and won.
He is popular with attorneys and has a reputation for doing things quickly.
Orlando attorney Wayne Klinkbeil was an assistant public defender assigned to Lester's courtroom when the judge first took the bench in 1997. Lester, he said, is a very good judge.
He is consistent, a tough sentencer, Klinkbeil said, "very in control of his courtroom, very straightforward with expectations."
The judge's daughter, Alexandra Lester, 26, a member of the Florida Bar, said she never saw her father agonize over a ruling.
"He basically told me it should not be hard to make the right decision if you follow the law," she said.
His hero, she said, was his father, Kenneth Lester Sr., a World War II veteran and Glenn L. Martin Co. engineer who raised his family in Orlando and died last week.
The judge has a great deal of experience with criminal trials, including high-profile cases. He gave Michael Reynolds two death sentences plus a life prison sentence for beating and stabbing a Geneva, Fla., couple and their 11-year-old child to death in 1998.
Lester sentenced ax murderer and handyman John Michael Buzia to death in the slaying of a 71-year-old Oviedo, Fla., man.
And Lester eased into the outside world a schizophrenic killer, Stephanie Gardner, an Oviedo woman who had been locked in a state mental hospital for a decade after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting deaths of her mother and father.
Lester ordered her released to a Jacksonville group home in 2001.
Lester grew up in Orlando, the son of an engineer and executive secretary.
He graduated from Boone High School in 1971, having competed on its basketball, track and swim teams.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and was deployed to Vietnam. When he returned, he went to college, earned a degree in accounting then went to law school at the University of Florida.
He was in private practice 17 years.
Former state legislator Gary Siegel had a law office in the same building as Lester for 15 years and, for a time, lived a few blocks away. He would pop into Lester's house unannounced, plop down in the living room and ask Lester to play the piano.
"And he'd play 'The Long and Winding Road,' which was my favorite, and 'Michelle,' other Beatles tunes ... and he played well."
"He's a great guy," Siegel said, "a decent guy. A lot of these people, they get on the bench, they change. ... He hasn't changed."
Lester is married Dorothy Sedgwick, a long-time homicide prosecutor at the State Attorney's Office in Orange County, Fla.
They have two grown children.
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