By Chris Francescani
(Reuters) - A new judge has been assigned to hear the murder case against former Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who shot and killed black teenager Trayvon Martin in February.
Debra Nelson is the third judge to be assigned to the case since Zimmerman's April arrest on one count of second-degree murder in the death of the 17-year-old Martin.
On Wednesday, a three-judge appellate panel ordered the case's previous judge, Kenneth Lester, to step aside.
The arrest of Zimmerman followed weeks of civil rights demonstrations in Florida and across the nation after police initially determined that the February 26 shooting of Martin was justified under Florida's landmark "Stand Your Ground" gun law. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old white Hispanic, has pleaded not guilty.
Martin was unarmed and walking back from a store when Zimmerman called a 911 dispatcher and said the teen looked suspicious. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense after he was attacked and Martin repeatedly slammed his head to the ground.
The previous judge, Lester, had recently denied a motion from Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, to step down. O'Mara said Lester had demonstrated a bias against his client with "gratuitous" and disparaging remarks" about Zimmerman in a July ruling in which the judge raised Zimmerman's bond to $1 million from $150,000.
In that ruling, Lester said Zimmerman had "tried to manipulate the system" at his initial bond hearing by failing to disclose money raised through donations to a defense fund website.
O'Mara declined to comment on Thursday.
The defense attorney has 20 days to challenge Lester's previous rulings in the case, which include the disclosure of testimony from a woman who said Zimmerman had touched her sexually when the two were children.
Lester ruled that her testimony be released, despite the prosecution and the defense agreeing that it was "highly prejudicial," O'Mara told the Miami Herald.
In April, Circuit Court Judge Jessica Recksiedler recused herself from the case because her husband worked with attorney and CNN legal analyst Mark Nejame, who was originally approached by Zimmerman to represent him.
Nelson, 58, was appointed to the 18th Judicial Circuit by then Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 1999. She previously served as a family court and drug court judge, and spent years in private practice as a commercial litigator.
It will be up to Nelson to decide if Zimmerman qualifies for immunity under the state's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows residents to use deadly force to defend themselves if they believe they are immediate danger of bodily harm.
(Reporting By Chris Francescani; Editing by Peter Cooney)