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Did George Zimmerman's Ex-Lawyers Violate Ethics Rules?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

Florida attorneys Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig cited ethics in withdrawing as George Zimmerman's legal counsel. But how they handled their withdrawal is coming under fire from some law professors, who say the lawyers may have violated Florida's ethics rules.

Sonner and Uhrig's press conference announcing they were stepping down from Zimmerman's defense was "professional suicide," Stephen Gillers of New York University School of Law told Reuters.

That's because Florida's Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit a lawyer from revealing "information relating to the representation" of a former client. The lawyers did that when they spoke to reporters, Gillers and other ethics experts said.

Privileged information?

At Tuesday's press conference, Hal Uhrig explicitly told reporters neither he nor Craig Sonner were disclosing anything protected by the attorney-client privilege, Reuters reports. But Gillers says Florida's ethics rules protect "information, not just communications."

Such protected information would likely include Zimmerman's alleged personal phone call to the special prosecutor, and his being "emotionally crippled," as Uhrig described at the press conference.

Fair trial compromised?

Calling out a former client's mental state may jeopardize the client's right to a fair trial "because you are creating the substantial possibility of prejudice," University of Miami School of Law professor Anthony Alfieri told Reuters.

Countering negative publicity?

On the other hand, Florida attorneys are allowed to counter negative media publicity if a client authorizes counsel to do so, according to Reuters. But it's not clear if Uhrig and Sonner got Zimmerman's permission.

Prior media appearances?

Even before the lawyers withdrew, critics questioned their extensive national media interviews. One ethics prof opined that their detailed description of George Zimmerman's account of the Trayvon Martin shooting was "right there on the edge" of violating Florida's rule against prejudicial extrajudicial statements.

Craig Sonner denied he and Hal Uhrig did anything wrong: "Nothing was discussed that wasn't already in the media," he told Reuters. But ethics professors say it's possible the Florida Bar may launch an investigation.

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