A college education can lead a student to do great things, but one UCF alumnus has undertaken one of the most controversial cases in our country today.
Mark O’Mara, the Orlando-based attorney defending George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, is relying on knowledge and experience gained from 30 years in the field to ensure a fair trial for his client — a career that all began with a prelaw political science degree from UCF.
O’Mara, who graduated from UCF in 1979, credits his college experience and law professors like Roger Handberg and Bob Bledsoe for sparking his interest in law.
“They sort of lit the fire in me concerning the Constitution and the constitutional rights that we all have and enjoy,” O’Mara said.
O’Mara was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and was active in the Student Government Association, first as adviser to the president and then as student body president himself. In addition to the cases he’s taken over the years, O’Mara credits his experience in handling controversy to SGA.
“There were other experiences I had specific to student government, dealing with some of the social causes back then, we’re talking late ‘70s, both on college campuses nationwide and our very own college campus,” O’Mara said.
After graduating from the Florida State University College of Law in 1982, O’Mara began his career as an attorney, taking on cases pertaining to criminal law and family law for the next 30 years.
O’Mara, familiar with the controversy surrounding murder and death penalty cases, was offered his most media-driven case yet: defending Zimmerman in the Martin case.
The case has proven to be different from anything he has done in the past because of the extraordinary focus on the case and the larger societal and racial issues of how the criminal justice system handles crime, O’Mara said.
“The focus on this case outside the criminal matter, but overpowering it, is the racial components of how young black males are treated within the system, whether they be defendants or victims,” O'Mara said.
Armando Payas, a UCF alumnus who served as O’Mara’s vice president in SGA, is also an attorney in Orlando. Payas admires O’Mara’s courage for taking on a case surrounded by a media circus and drew a comparison between the character of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Atticus Finch took on an unpopular case in his time because he was representing an African-American who was accused of raping a white woman, so it was a controversial case at the time,” Payas said. "Interesting that the roles have changed a little bit, but it’s still controversial, as he’s representing someone who’s accused of killing a young African-American male.”
As the Martin case continues to gain media attention, O’Mara is confident in his abilities to defend Zimmerman and ultimately hopes for a fair trial for his client.
“The best thing I can hope for right now is that all of the evidence gets out in front of a jury and that they look at it, follow the law in looking at the evidence, not be swayed by passions or bias as the law suggests we need to avoid, and that they come up with a fair result,” O’Mara said. “As long as they do that, whatever the result is it would be a just one.”
Dr. Robert Bledsoe, a professor in UCF’s legal studies program who taught O’Mara while he was attending the university, still associates with O’Mara and credits him with a solid reputation in the profession.
“Any attorney would tell you that Mr. Zimmerman is in excellent hands," said Bledsoe. "It’s obviously going to be a high-profile, media-driven trial it would seem, but if there’s anybody who’s able to handle it in a professional and calm matter, it would be Mark, there’s no doubt about that.”
In retrospect, O’Mara thanks his UCF faculty for their teachings that ultimately led him through his long and successful career.
“To this day I consider them my mentors. Certainly I’ve known Bob Bledsoe and have stayed in the best touch with him over the years since I’ve left UCF, but many of the other professors as well,” O’Mara said. “They started me down a path that led me here today, and I still thank them for it.”