SANFORD, Fla. -- A legal-defense fund helped Bill Clinton pay his impeachment-related legal bills. They've been used to help save the whales and protect endangered species.
But they are seldom set up to help a murder suspect who doesn't have enough money to defend himself.
That's what George Zimmerman's attorney Mark O'Mara has done.
Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, raised more than $200,000 before his arrest using a website and PayPal account he set up himself.
Those contributions show that people want to help George Zimmerman -- and there's no reason not to let them continue, O'Mara said. Last week, he shut down Zimmerman's site, took control of the remaining $150,000 and announced plans to relaunch the legal-defense fund using a newly created website of his own. His fund began taking donations Thursday.
Is O'Mara being smart? Yes, say criminal-defense lawyers.
Will asking for money hurt Zimmerman or his case? Maybe, if it becomes a distraction, lawyers say. But they also say O'Mara's intent is honorable -- to raise money so he can mount a stronger defense.
"Legal-defense funds can be incredibly valuable if utilized correctly," said Benedict Kuehne, a prominent Miami lawyer who used one to help pay legal costs when he was indicted on federal money-laundering charges in 2005, a case the government ultimately dropped.
Kuehne is not a poor man, but the government often has far more money and resources than even upper-income defendants, he said, and legal-defense funds help level the field.
O'Mara told The Orlando Sentinel that it would never have occurred to him to set up a fund for Zimmerman, had the Neighborhood Watch volunteer not already collected a pool of money.
O'Mara told CNN last week that he estimates Zimmerman's defense will cost $500,000 to $1 million. He said he earlier had agreed to handle the case for free, but now that there's money, he expects to be paid.
His hourly rate is $400, he said, and he estimated this case would take 1,000 hours.
That $400,000 estimate is reasonable, given the scope of the case, said James Felman, a criminal-defense attorney in Tampa, Fla., and vice chair of the American Bar Association's criminal-justice section.
Legal-defense funds, said Stephen A. Salzburg, a professor at The George Washington University law school, "are not very common for the obvious reason that most of the time people accused of crime are not very popular."
Zimmerman's case is different, Felman said, because it has generated so much media attention. There are now people who sympathize with Zimmerman, who think he has been mistreated and want to help.
"Most of my clients," said Felman, "they could call for a legal-defense fund to be created, and no one would care."
One of the country's best known legal-defense funds was created in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP.
It was a driving force behind Brown v. the Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
It also paid lawyers to travel to the South in the 1930s and '40s and represent black men who had been charged with crimes but who could not persuade white lawyers to represent them, said Salzburg, who clerked for Marshall after the legendary civil-rights activist was appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the 1980s and '90s, legal-defense funds were created to help Oliver North and Bill and Hillary Clinton, public figures who became the targets of special prosecutors, Salzburg said. In those cases, the subjects were the target of independent prosecutors with virtually unlimited resources, he said.
"It was a recognition you could exhaust people's private funds, people who were trying to provide a public service," he said.
There are no Florida Bar rules regulating legal-defense funds.
"I'm going to create some," O'Mara said last week.
He had misgivings about controlling a legal defense fund that would largely benefit him, he told the Sentinel, so he turned it over to someone else.
According to the site GZLegalCase.com, Zimmerman's defense team received registration certification from the Florida Division of Consumer Services on Thursday. A notice on a website says the money would be used for Zimmerman's living expenses, legal fees and costs associated with the case.
It will be administered by someone hired especially for that job, O'Mara said, a certified public accountant and former Internal Revenue Service agent. That person will make all spending decisions -- Zimmerman and O'Mara won't have direct access to the funds, he wrote.
Felman, Salzburg and Kuehne recommended other guidelines:
Make clear that you work for your client -- not donors -- Felman said.
"You can pay me all the money you want. ... I'm not going to do what you want. I'm going to do what my client wants," he said.
Kuehne suggested returning money if it comes from radical or political groups who appear to be making a statement.
And Salzburg said O'Mara should negotiate his legal fee upfront and cap what he will accept, even if fundraising brings in much more money than is needed.
(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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