Zimmerman trial lawyers have very different styles

SANFORD — They have very different styles: Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda is fiery, dramatic and aggressive. Defense attorney Mark O'Mara is calm, laid-back and thoughtful.

On Monday, they will go head-to-head, de la Rionda trying to convict George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, O'Mara trying to win his acquittal.

For each, it is the biggest case of his career.

De la Rionda has said little to reporters, but during hearings and jury selection, he has made clear his passion.

"We are to seek justice, to present evidence of wrongdoing," he told 40 prospective jurors Wednesday.

O'Mara has been far more visible, vocal and in recent months more confident. He has begun to predict victory.

"This case will fall," he said Thursday, "on the fact that the state cannot convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt with their evidence that a crime was committed by my client."

The two attorneys were collegial during the two weeks of jury selection, but earlier, their criticism of each other turned bitter.

De la Rionda has repeatedly accused O'Mara of grandstanding and playing to the media. O'Mara has accused the prosecutor of failing to turn over key information in the case, including that the state's most important witness lied under oath.

De la Rionda

De la Rionda will put on his case first. On Monday, that will begin with an opening statement.

The 56-year-old has spent his entire career as a prosecutor. He became a lawyer in 1983, the same year he went to work at the State Attorney's Office in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which is headquartered in Jacksonville, a job he has never left.

Attorneys in Jacksonville are reluctant to talk publicly about de la Rionda, saying they fear retribution from the State Attorney's Office there. A former co-worker describes him as "very tough" and "overly aggressive," especially in death-penalty cases.

"He is an extremely hardworking attorney," said the former co-worker. "He'd work 24 hours a day if it's necessary."

De la Rionda has handled more than 250 jury trials, according to his office — 68 of them murder cases — and has sent 29 people to death row.

He is the office's No. 2 employee, serving as senior managing director and second only to elected State Attorney Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in the Zimmerman case appointed by Gov. Rick Scott.

To Orlando-area attorneys, though, he is an unknown.

Bill Sheaffer, legal analyst for WFTV-Channel 9, has watched de la Rionda during Zimmerman's jury selection and at earlier hearings in the case.

"He's certainly passionate," Sheaffer said. "He's fiery. … That fire just is always below the surface, and at any given moment, it can erupt."

On Day 4 of jury selection, de la Rionda spent more than an hour grilling a man who described Zimmerman as a conscientious neighbor who was trying to do the right thing. The man had donated $20 to Zimmerman's legal-defense fund but told the increasingly hostile prosecutor that he could be a fair juror.