George ZImmerman with his public defender, Jeff Dowdy | CREDIT: AP
A few months ago Jeff Dowdy — a Florida criminal defense attorney with over 20 years of experience — was in private practice representing Robert Zimmerman, Jr., the brother of George Zimmerman. No, Robert had not been accused of a crime. Rather, he was engaged in a “national media crusade” to defend his brother and attack his critics. (He first gained prominence when he posted a series of racist tweets about Trayvon Martin, for which he later apologized.) Dowdy subsequently became a dutiful, if somewhat more subdued, sidekick.
In August, for example, Dowdy appeared with Robert on an two hour broadcast of “Armed American Radio,” a fringe show produced by the The United States Concealed Carry Association. (Sample content: “We are now faced with the most ANTI-FREEDOM, GUN HATING, SOCIALIST-DRIVEN administration and agenda in our nation’s history…The onslaught of gun-haters who want to take away your freedoms CAN NOT AND WILL NOT GO UNATTENDED…”) On the broadcast, Dowdy — who was introduced as Robert’s lawyer — described George Zimmerman as an “altar boy,” who clearly acted in self-defense. Dowdy agreed that the only reason Trayon Martin’s killing was a source of controversy was because “people have been brainwashed in New York City that you have to run away.” He called the decision to prosecute George Zimmerman “reprehensible.”
Today, Dowdy is the taxpayer-financed public defender for George Zimmerman as he faces new charges for assaulting his girlfriend with a shotgun.
How did it happen that a highly-skilled veteran lawyer — deeply familiar and sympathetic to George Zimmerman — ended up being his lawyer, for free?
To find out, ThinkProgress contacted Blaise Trettis, who is in charge of the Public Defenders of Brevard and Seminole Counties. In an interview, Trettis said that, in fact, Dowdy had not been assigned to Zimmerman. Within the public defender’s office, lawyers are assigned automatically based on the judge presiding over the case. There are two public defenders who handle the cases before each judge, each taking half of the alphabet. In this instance, Zimmerman’s case is in the court room of Judge Fred Schott and he was assigned public defender Daniel Megaro. Indeed, Megaro is representing Zimmmerman on the case.
So where does Dowdy come in?
A few weeks ago, Dowdy left his private practice to become the Chief Assistant Public Defender for Seminole County. According to Trettis, Dowdy does not normally handle individual cases because he has to manage the entire county. When Dowdy does get involved, it would typically be in very serious cases like first degree murder. But, Trettis said, Dowdy has the “discretion” to assign himself as the attorney in any case. And that is exactly what he did in the case of George Zimmerman, assigning himself as an additional lawyer.
Trettis said that, Dowdy’s prior work for Robert Zimmerman Jr. notwithstanding, he had no concerns that George Zimmerman was getting special treatment.
For George Zimmerman, landing an experienced attorney like Dowdy was a big break. According to an affidavit filed with the court, Zimmerman said he had total assets of $149 in cash, no bank account and $2.5 million in debt. His previous attorney, Mark O’Mara, will no longer represent him in any matters. (On Armed American Radio, Dowdy describes O’Mara as “an old friend.”)
Still, George Zimmerman is armed with the services of two attorneys, including one with more than 20 years of criminal defense experience. For an indigent defendant in Florida, that is hardly typical. Last year, 64 lawyers in Brevard and Seminole County handled 28,000 cases. Each lawyer handling felonies, such as the one George Zimmerman is charged with, takes on 400 to 500 clients every year. Earlier this year, Florida’s highest court took the extraordinary step of allowing public defenders in Miami-Dade County — who face similar caseloads — to withdraw from cases due to overload. The move could eventually force Florida to provide more funding for public defenders.
Dowdy and Robert Zimmerman Jr. did not return requests for comment.