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.
You gave money to George Zimmerman's legal-defense fund and you believe you can be fair? de la Rionda barked.
"Lower your voice," Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson instructed. That prospective juror was not chosen.
But de la Rionda also was upbeat at times in jury selection, bouncing on his feet, laughing and joking.
"Generally speaking, prosecutors seem to be more stoic with the jury than do defense attorneys," said Orlando defense attorney Lyle Mazin, but de la Rionda "did a good job of trying to be lighthearted with the jury."
During an exchange with a nervous prospective juror who had never received a juror summons before, de la Rionda tried to draw her out. How has it been? he asked.
"It's been spectacular," she said dryly.
O'Mara's tone in jury selection Thursday bordered on professorial: It was much like a civics lesson, followed by long discussions of several of the jury instructions relevant to the case.
After he explained that jurors should listen critically to witnesses and consider their possible biases in evaluating testimony, one woman — B-51 — said she was grateful.
"It's good to know that, because I didn't know that," said the woman, who was chosen as a member of the jury.
Before Thursday, "in 35 years, I've never heard a juror thank either the prosecution or the defense for asking the questions and explaining the concepts," Sheaffer said.
O'Mara, 57, graduated from Florida State University College of Law in 1982 and spent two years as a prosecutor for the Seminole County State Attorney's Office before entering private practice.
A past president of the Seminole County Bar Association, he operates a practice that handles a wide range of cases, from family law to death-penalty murders.
He has experience with high-profile cases, including the 2001 trial of serial killer Frederick Peter Cox, whom he represented with current co-counsel Don West.
Dean Reed, a Longwood defense attorney and former prosecutor who has opposed O'Mara in the past, called him "a pretty laid-back-type guy ... kind of like a country lawyer."
That mentality was on display as O'Mara addressed the jurors as a group Thursday. He wanted to be sure they would forgive his manners if he pointed at them during questioning, "though my mother, rest her soul, would not be happy with this."
O'Mara's tenor in the case so far matches his reputation, members of the local legal community say.
Going forward, "I think he's going to be very hard to fluster," said Orlando defense attorney Diana Tennis. "I don't know that I could come up with a more calm, collected, unflappable legal duo than Mark O'Mara and Don West."
O'Mara, she continued, "is a Zen kind of guy."
How to start?
Jurors will hear opening statements Monday from de la Rionda and West. After that prosecutors will start presenting testimony and evidence. How will they begin?
Central Florida defense attorneys had different opinions:
Mazin expects the first witness to be a law-enforcement officer giving a general overview of the facts: "There's no one piece of evidence; there's no 'gotcha' moment that the state's going to have here."
Tennis said the same: "I would expect either the lead detective or 911 operators." Prosecutors usually try to tell a story chronologically "in a narrative, because that's the easiest for people to understand."
Reed said Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, "would probably be the first person you'd put on, because you always want to start strong and end strong. ... The victim cannot speak for himself. She will speak for that victim."
Sheaffer said there's only one choice: "the 911 call" that recorded screams and the fatal gunshot. "Does that not set the stage? Is that not like cold water in your face? ... The screaming and then the shot and then the silence."Copyright © 2015, CT Now