By M.C. Moewe
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The Florida judge who said George Zimmerman’s domestic violence injunction was “somewhat mild” when he ordered a $150,000 bond for the accused murderer of Trayvon Martin holds a controversial opinion on domestic violence.
While hearing a case five months ago, Judge Kenneth R. Lester said he believes domestic violence cases can be categorized — with one type more serious than the other. His view, which domestic violence experts describe as misinformed, may offer some explanation for his ordering for Zimmerman of what some court observers thought was a low bond amount for a second-degree murder charge.
“There’s different types of domestic violence,” Judge Lester said during a Nov. 18, 2011, hearing. “There’s domestic violence where somebody is on a routine basis hitting somebody or abusing somebody and there’s domestic violence when I say they reach a breaking point or snapping point or a boiling point. It appears to be the second type here where somebody’s reached a snapping point or a breaking point.”
Listen to Judge Kenneth R. Lester Jr. express his opinion on domestic violence during a Nov. 18, 2011, hearing:
At the time, Lester was hearing a child dependency case, in which the state files charges against a parent for neglect. The mother in the case suffered bruises from an attack by her husband — a one-time occurrence, according to court records.
“We can categorize (domestic violence) into where somebody is beating somebody, somebody is physically abusive, slapping, choking, strangulation, things of that sort,” Judge Lester continued. “Or, as in this type, it was the pushing, the removing of a person from a particular location which is secondary or not as bad as the other.”
Zimmerman, 26, shot and killed the unarmed Martin, 17, on the night of Feb. 26 after calling 911 to report “a real suspicious guy” who “looks like he’s up to no good” in his Sanford neighborhood.
After the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting e-mailed him a portion of the Nov. 18, 2011, hearing transcripts, Judge Lester explained his comments during an interview Monday.
“It boils down to both of the situations are domestic violence,” Judge Lester said. “It’s still domestic violence, but it is not what I call a chronic type. The situation I am talking about is when they act out of character that one time.”
During Zimmerman’s bond hearing on April 20, prosecutors brought up a 2005 domestic violence incident in which Zimmerman and a woman filed injunctions against the other, each claiming to be the victim. The woman said Zimmerman pushed her and then smacked her in the mouth with his open hand and asked her how it felt.
“The injunction was somewhat mild compared to the injunctions that I’m familiar with,” Lester said during Zimmerman’s hearing.
After reviewing Lester’s comments, Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, questioned whether the judge has an adequate understanding of domestic violence.
“While Judge Lester’s comments indicate he thinks he understands domestic violence, from my experience working with victims since 1981, he is not well-informed,” Smith said. “The amount or frequency of physical violence an abuser uses against his victim will not give a good indication of the level of danger the family is in. There have been many cases when the first use of physical violence was the lethal action of killing his victim.”
In the interview, Judge Lester agreed that the first violent act can be deadly. “They may be correct, but nobody can predict that necessarily,” he said. “But when you hear hoof beats, you think horses, not zebras. You can’t always take the extreme situation for every situation. You can’t see things lurking in the shadow on every case.”
The domestic violence incident in the Zimmerman case could come again before the judge, said John Contini, a South Florida criminal defense lawyer. The prosecution will likely try to persuade Judge Lester that the domestic incident and an altercation with a law enforcement officer demonstrate a pattern of violence for Zimmerman.
“Past criminal conduct is not admissible as a general rule, but if you can show the conduct is similar enough in nature, then it all comes in,” Contini said.
For his part, Contini also questions Judge Lester’s view of domestic violence.
“You’d be right, I think, if you understood the judge’s comments to seemingly minimize some types of domestic violence, straining to differentiate those cases from the more horrific cases of strangulation, beatings, etc.,” Contini said. “Whether you push, strike, slap, punch or strangle, you’re doing violence to another human being. The victim is being bullied by the perpetrator, and are we to now quibble about the degree to which the victim is victimized?”
Added Contini: “The brutal truth is, these crimes are by definition and reality essentially either black or white. There are no shades of gray.”