SANFORD, Florida - When a 39-year-old woman snatched a baby from a
Florida hospital in 2008, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson wasn't swayed by
the fact that the child was missing for only about an hour. She
sentenced the kidnapper to 30 years in prison.
Nelson is in the
spotlight again as the presiding judge in one of America's most
controversial murder cases: the killing of Trayvon Martin. Her
reputation among some as a tough-on-defendants judge may be transformed
as she balances both sides of the emotionally charged debate about why
George Zimmerman fatally shot the 17-year-old.
before her know that her reputation is to be a law-oriented,
no-nonsense judge," said Daniel Gerber an Orlando defense attorney who
argued a civil case before Nelson. "We know not to cross that line."
59-year-old judge has lived up to Gerber's view of her throughout
Zimmerman's trial by fairly dishing out orders to prosecutors and
defense attorneys. Nelson often asks lawyers to get to the point and
stay on subject.
Zimmerman, 29, is on trial for second-degree
murder for the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon. Zimmerman, who
has pleaded not guilty, has said he acted in self-defense after he was
attacked. Trayvon's death and the speculation that Zimmerman, who is
Hispanic, profiled, followed and murdered him sparked racial controversy
and protests around the country last year. Zimmerman faces life in
prison if convicted but has maintained that race did not factor into his
The nationally televised trial that some estimated could have lasted two months is on track to be about three weeks long.
no, no, no me either," Nelson once said to Zimmerman's attorney, Mark
O'Mara, as O'Mara argued that the parents of his client be allowed to
remain in court. Nelson, honoring a prosecution request, ordered
Zimmerman's family to leave the courtroom at the start of trial
testimony because the members are potential witnesses.
always in a black simple robe for court, doesn't mind working weekends
and scheduled the Zimmerman trial to resume on July 5,
choosing not to take a long holiday weekend. She was assigned the case
in August 2012 after one judge stepped down because of a conflict of
interest and another was removed.
"She is very talented and has a
wide degree of knowledge and experience," said Suzan Abramson, an
Orlando attorney who used to work with Nelson.
Gerber agreed and
said Nelson is a cautious judge who regards rules and regulations and
likes to see lawyers working together to come to a conclusion.
woman with broad legal experience, Nelson earned a bachelor of arts in
psychology from the University of South Florida in 1975 and a law
degree from South Texas College of Law in 1979. She did a brief stint at
the state attorney's office in Broward County, Fla. She also worked for
the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee, and
at Boroughs, Grimm, Bennett & Griffin, P.A., a commercial
For seven years, Nelson ran her own practice
in Orlando that handled several issues including contract disputes,
family law, and class action lawsuits. In 1999, she was appointed to the
bench by Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. In 2013, Nelson won the
Mize-Dickey Outstanding Jurist Award which goes to judges who exemplify
the highest standards of integrity, impartiality and intellect.
Among some lawyers, however, Nelson has a reputation for siding with the prosecution.
will make certain rulings that may be more favorable to the
prosecution," said Kimberly Priest Johnson, a Dallas-based federal
criminal defense lawyer.