Tuesday's announcement by two lawyers that they're no longer representing George Zimmerman was a "bizarre episode" that might prompt a special prosecutor to move up her decision on whether to arrest him, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said.
The special prosecutor is trying to determine whether to charge the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, who claimed he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February in self-defense.
“That was certainly one of the wackiest news conferences I have ever seen," Toobin said about Tuesday's announcement by attorneys Hal Uhrig and Craig Sonner that they have withdrawn as counsel for Zimmerman. The attorneys said that they still believe Zimmerman's self-defense claim, but that they can't represent him because Zimmerman hasn't answered their messages since Sunday.
"I think they are obviously concerned about his well-being, but they are also, I think, potentially setting him up for an earlier arrest than they might have, because one of the reasons a prosecutor doesn't arrest someone right away is that the prosecutor is assured by the counsel that, 'Look, he'll surrender. He's not going anywhere,' " Toobin said. "At this point the lawyers don't know what he's doing, don't know where he is, and the prosecutor may say, ‘Look, I’d better arrest this person or he's going to be in the wind.’
"So I think this bizarre episode might accelerate the prosecutor's timetable if, in fact, she's going to arrest him.”
Police say Zimmerman fatally shot Martin, who was African-American, on February 26 in Sanford, Florida, as Martin was walking home from a convenience store. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, had called 911 to complain about a suspicious person in the neighborhood.
Zimmerman told Sanford police the shooting was self-defense, and Zimmerman was released without charges. Authorities have said Zimmerman was not immediately charged because there were no grounds, at the outset, to disprove his account that he'd acted to protect himself.
But thousands have converged on Sanford to join in protests calling for Zimmerman's arrest and criticizing the police department's handling of the case, and a special prosecutor in Florida is investigating the case.
Toobin said he found it troubling that Uhrig and Sonner felt obliged to withdraw from the case so publicly.
"They make their client look like a lunatic, and they could have communicated this information to the prosecutor who, after all, is the most important person here," Toobin said. "I don't think they did George Zimmerman a great service by spelling this out in such extraordinary detail when they could have simply just gone into the prosecutor and said, ‘Hey, look, we don't represent this guy anymore.’ So I think that's a troubling question of legal ethics on their part."
Toobin said attorneys are not obliged to participate with clients who are actively ignoring their advice or refusing to be in contact with them. And he noted that the attorneys had not entered a notice of appearance that officially would have made them Zimmerman's attorneys in the case.
"But the real issue, it seems to me, is where is he? Because that's going to be something that the prosecutor is very concerned about," Toobin said. "She needs to know that if she wants to proceed with an arrest, she can find the guy. And the lawyers are quite clearly making the representation that they don't know where he is."
Sonner, who said he and Uhrig would resume representing Zimmerman if Zimmerman asked, said that he is "reasonably sure" that he knows where Zimmerman is, and that he was in the United States.
Legal analyst Sunny Hostin told CNN that she agreed with Toobin that the prosecutor will be concerned about where Zimmerman is. But she said that the lawyers' revelation Tuesday that the prosecutor hasn't yet interviewed Zimmerman may mean that no decision on charges will happen in the near future.
Toobin and B.J. Bernstein, who also is a legal commenter for CNN and HLN, took to social media to express their disbelief at how the news conference was handled.