By Barbara Liston
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida judge will decide on Friday whether to release murder suspect George Zimmerman on bail pending his trial for the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. took over the racially charged case on Wednesday after another judge recused herself over a potential conflict of interest. He was to preside over a pre-trial detention hearing beginning at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), as he takes up a case that has riveted the United States.
Court officials in Sanford, Florida, the seat of Seminole County where 17-year-old Martin was gunned down on February 26, have provided few details about Friday's bond hearing. But they said it would include testimony from Zimmerman's family, after the defense filed an unopposed motion to allow them to speak on his behalf by phone.
The Martin family declined a request from Zimmerman to meet, said the family's attorney, Benjamin Crump.
"Zimmerman's request seems to be self-serving especially with his bond hearing (Friday)," Crump said in a statement. "We question his motives at this time."
Jeff Weiner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who practices in Miami, said Zimmerman was not necessarily entitled to release on bail. He faces up to life in prison for second-degree murder, a crime for which suspects in Florida are not usually afforded bail.
But if Angela Corey, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, wants to oppose his release, she will have to preview at least some of the evidence the state has against Zimmerman in proceedings known in Florida as an Arthur hearing, Weiner said.
"The state has the burden of proof to go forward and convince the judge that proof of guilt is evident and that the presumption of guilt is great ... That's what this hearing is about," Weiner said.
To accomplish that, he added, Corey would have to lay out the state's case far more vigorously than she did in a probable cause affidavit made public when Zimmerman made his first appearance in court on April 12.
To avoid tipping her hand in the case, Corey may simply decide not to oppose Zimmerman's release on bond. That would be highly unusual, however.
Corey's office would not comment on Thursday on whether she would oppose bond for Zimmerman.
Charles Rose, a professor at Florida's Stetson University College of Law, said "flight risk" was one fundamental issue Lester was sure to take into consideration in any ruling on bond.
"There's no indication Mr. Zimmerman's a flight risk. Arguably, he's not the type of person you need to hold over in a non-bondable fashion," Rose said.
But he added that prosecutors might argue against bond by citing concerns over Zimmerman's safety, and a lack of resources to put him under round-the-clock security.
Friends and family of Zimmerman have reported numerous death threats against him.
Martin was shot and killed in a gated community in Sanford following a confrontation that began, according to the probable cause affidavit, after he was "profiled" by Zimmerman as a criminal.
Police released Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch volunteer at the time of the shooting, after saying they found no probable cause to arrest him based on his account of self-defense.
That ignited a firestorm of protests and intense media scrutiny -- public pressure that forced the Sanford police chief and the regularly assigned prosecutor to step aside.
Zimmerman was finally arrested on April 10. He has spent the last 10 nights in a 67-square-foot cell in Seminole County's John E. Polk Correctional Facility.
(Writing and additional reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)