ORLANDO, Fla. -- Orlando attorney Mark O'Mara jumped into the George Zimmerman murder case, agreeing to defend one of the most reviled men in America for free.
Why did he do it? Why have other lawyers agreed to represent social pariahs -- at no charge?
Orlando attorney J. Cheney Mason took on the case of child-murder suspect Casey Anthony, eventually donating more than 1,200 hours, which he estimates was more than $600,000 worth of his time.
"I took that case," Mason said, "because I saw a desperate need for that defendant to have experience on that team that she didn't have, and I'm opposed to the death penalty.
"I've done it before. I don't know if I'm going to do it again," Mason admitted. "...I did not anticipate the case was going to be as long and involved as it was."
O'Mara says that, in the Zimmerman case, he is ready for a long, difficult slog.
It took him just two hours to say yes when he took the case in mid-April. By then, he told The Orlando Sentinel, Zimmerman had been in hiding for several weeks and had become one of the most hated men in America. A radical black militia group had placed a bounty on his head.
Zimmerman had shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as the unarmed black teen walked back to the town house where he was staying in a Sanford gated community where Zimmerman lived.
Did O'Mara take the case hoping to cash in later?
"Do I have the title of a book? Absolutely not," the 56-year-old O'Mara said last week. But he admitted there will be benefits, including having a very big national audience for his courtroom performance.
"I can't deny the fact that everyone out there seems to think this is going to have future benefits for me," he said. "I'll deal with it when it comes, if it comes."
O'Mara said he took the case because it seemed tailor-made for him: He's a criminal-trial specialist who has handled high-profile Central Florida cases and murder defendants.
By his estimation, several Central Florida lawyers were qualified to defend Zimmerman, but "I really felt I had a skill set to address this case better than most people I know," he said. "That sounds really egotistical."
O'Mara is no longer working for free. Late last month, he discovered $150,000 was remaining from $200,000 that Zimmerman had raised via a homemade website and PayPal account. Zimmerman already had used some of the money for living expenses, O'Mara said.
Until then, he thought Zimmerman was broke. In fact, he had written but not yet filed a motion asking Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. to declare his client indigent for costs, meaning he wanted the state to pay all defense-related costs except for his fee -- such things as hiring an investigator, paying for transcripts, hiring experts.
He now expects to be paid.
"I'm a businessman," O'Mara said.
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Detroit-area lawyer Geoffrey Feiger became famous representing Dr. Jack Kevorkian in several assisted suicide cases, all without charge.
Feiger took on that job and other high-profile nonpaying cases "because I think I have an ethical duty to represent people who need representation," he said.
"I think it's the role of attorneys to represent the oppressed and the damned and the hated."
The work and his willingness to talk about it have made him a media darling. He is a regular guest on cable news shows and formerly had his own show on Fox News and CBS Radio.
In 1995, Oviedo attorney James M. Russ agreed to represent, at no charge, one of the most notorious criminals in Central Florida when took on the case of Joseph "Crazy Joe" Spaziano, a motorcycle-gang member.
Spaziano was on death row, convicted of raping and killing Laura Lynn Harberts and tossing the teenager's body into a dump near Altamonte Springs.
Russ won a new trial for Spaziano and, three years after he took on the case, negotiated a second-degree-murder plea deal that gave Spaziano a sentence equal to the amount of time he had already served. Spaziano is still in prison, serving a life term for raping and stabbing another woman.
Russ, now 82, could not be reached for comment. But Orange-Osceola Public Defender Robert Wesley, who was Russ' co-defense counsel for a time, said Russ didn't take the case for publicity.
Russ hated the death penalty and cared about justice, Wesley said.
"He took the case out of conscience and never gave up on it."
If O'Mara handles the Zimmerman case well, his reputation will soar, Mason said. He'll be invited to make speeches. He might be offered a publishing deal.
"He will enjoy the professional satisfaction of having done the right thing," Mason said.
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