SANFORD, Fla.-- When a 39-year-old woman snatched a baby from a Florida hospital in 2008, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson wasn't swayed by the fact that the child was missing for only about an hour. She sentenced the kidnapper to 30 years in prison.
Nelson is in the spotlight again as the presiding judge in one of America's most controversial murder cases: the killing of Trayvon Martin. Her reputation among some as a tough-on-defendants judge may be transformed as she balances both sides of the emotionally charged debate about why George Zimmerman fatally shot the 17-year-old.
"Lawyers appearing before her know that her reputation is to be a law-oriented, no-nonsense judge," said Daniel Gerber an Orlando defense attorney who argued a civil case before Nelson. "We know not to cross that line."
The 59-year-old judge has lived up to Gerber's view of her throughout Zimmerman's trial by fairly dishing out orders to prosecutors and defense attorneys. Nelson often asks lawyers to get to the point and stay on subject.
Zimmerman, 29, is on trial for second-degree murder for the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon. Zimmerman, who has pleaded not guilty, has said he acted in self-defense after he was attacked. Trayvon's death and the speculation that Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, profiled, followed and murdered him sparked racial controversy and protests around the country last year. Zimmerman faces life in prison if convicted but has maintained that race did not factor into his actions.
The nationally televised trial that some estimated could have lasted two months is on track to be about three weeks long.
"Don't no, no, no me either," Nelson once said to Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, as O'Mara argued that the parents of his client be allowed to remain in court. Nelson, honoring a prosecution request, ordered Zimmerman's family to leave the courtroom at the start of trial testimony because the members are potential witnesses.
Nelson, always in a black simple robe for court, doesn't mind working weekends and has already scheduled the Zimmerman trial to resume on July 5, choosing not to take a long holiday weekend. She was assigned the case in August 2012 after one judge stepped down because of a conflict of interest and another was removed.
"She is very talented and has a wide degree of knowledge and experience," said Suzan Abramson, an Orlando attorney who used to work with Nelson.
Gerber agreed and said Nelson is a cautious judge who regards rules and regulations and likes to see lawyers working together to come to a conclusion.
A woman with broad legal experience, Nelson earned a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of South Florida in 1975 and a law degree from South Texas College of Law in 1979. She did a brief stint at the state attorney's office in Broward County, Fla. She also worked for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee, and at Boroughs, Grimm, Bennett & Griffin, P.A., a commercial litigation practice.
For seven years, Nelson ran her own practice in Orlando that handled several issues including contract disputes, family law, and class action lawsuits. In 1999, she was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. In 2013, Nelson won the Mize-Dickey Outstanding Jurist Award which goes to judges who exemplify the highest standards of integrity, impartiality and intellect.
Among some lawyers, however, Nelson has a reputation for siding with the prosecution.
"She will make certain rulings that may be more favorable to the prosecution," said Kimberly Priest Johnson, a Dallas-based federal criminal defense lawyer.
Johnson has followed the Zimmerman case and Nelson's legal background. Nelson tends to give convicted defendants high sentences, Johnson said.
One example is in the "baby snatcher case" where Jennifer Latham, 39, was charged with child abduction, Johnson recalls. Nelson ruled that Latham, who was convicted of abducting a 1-day-old baby from a local hospital, would serve 30 years in prison.
"It's definitely the high end of what the person could have received," Johnson said.
Despite her perceived leanings, Nelson made it clear during jury selection for the Zimmerman trial that she would not bend to the prosecution's requests unless they were firmly grounded in law. She stopped state attorneys from striking two white women from the jury after she found their dismissal requests did not meet the standards of Florida law.
Nelson also delivered a blow to prosecutors when she ruled that state voice experts could not testify at trial that they thought a screaming voice was Trayvon.
Meanwhile, one of the best examples of how Nelson is handling Zimmerman's trial came during defense attorney Don West's more than seven-hour-cross-examination of Rachel Jeantel, a young woman who was on the phone with Trayvon moments before his death. During an obviously contentious conversation between Zimmerman's lawyer and the 19-year-old, Nelson didn't hesitate to reign in both when things seemed to be getting out of control.
At one point, Nelson asked West to lower his voice as he asked Jeantel if she knew whether Trayvon drove his fist into Zimmerman's face. She did not, Jeantel said. During the same exchange, Nelson asked West to step back from Jeantel as he leaned over her going over Trayvon's cell phone records from the night of the shooting.
Later, Nelson told both to be respectful of each other. "Don't ask your question while she's trying to finish her answer," Nelson said to West sternly. Moments later Nelson had to interject again, this time addressing Jeantel: "Wait until Mr. West finishes his answer."
As the trial continues, Nelson will continue to make it clear that she is in charge, lawyers said.
"I think she will do her best to allow both sides to present their case," Johnson said. "At the end of the day, the jury makes the decision and I believe that she will be as fair as possible, that she will help conduct a good trial."
Yamiche Alcindor and Steph Solis, USA TODAY