As he defended George Zimmerman in a highly controversial Florida murder trial, defense attorney Donald R. West had some strong supporters in Buffalo’s legal community.
West, a key member of the legal team that obtained an acquittal for Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, is a 1980 graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School. He still has many close friends in Western New York, including attorneys Kenneth A. Patricia, Steven P. Curvin and Richard G. Abbott.
While they have some mixed feelings about Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin, the three attorneys all said they are proud of West and the job he did defending Zimmerman in a trial that received extensive media coverage.
The trial was one of the most highly publicized U.S. court cases in recent years – and at times, West came under fire from media critics for his actions in the trial.
“I rarely follow these big TV trials, but I followed this one every day, because Don is my friend,” said Curvin. “I am not surprised by the verdict. Don is an excellent attorney who has never shied away from tough situations in the 35 years I’ve known him.”
“He’s a lawyer’s lawyer ... an experienced criminal attorney who fights for his clients,” Abbott said. “His role in the judicial process is to defend his client, and that’s what he did for Zimmerman.”
Patricia said West had to quit a good job as a federal public defender in Orlando, Fla., to join Zimmerman’s defense team about 14 months ago.
“Don told me he knew it was going to be a grueling case, and that it was going to take over his life for the next year, but he wanted to do it,” Patricia said.
Repeated efforts to reach the 62-year-old West were unsuccessful. Friends said he has been bombarded with interview requests since the verdict late Saturday night.
Described by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper as one of Central Florida’s most high-profile defense lawyers, West received strong reviews for his courtroom work from many legal experts who appeared on network television shows. But he also was involved in his share of controversy during the Zimmerman trial.
He began his opening statement with a “knock-knock” joke that upset many trial observers and drew fire from media critics. The joke was an attempt to poke fun at the fact that it had been difficult to find jury members who did not have strong opinions on the Zimmerman case.
“Knock-knock,” West’s joke went. “Who is there?”
“George Zimmerman who?”
“Ah, good, you’re on the jury.”
The Daily Beast news site called it “one of the most tasteless knock-knock jokes in the history of televised courtroom trials.”
In an interview after the acquittal, West said that convicting Zimmerman would have turned a “tragedy into a travesty.”
“There’s no winners here,” West said in the interview. “There’s no monsters here … It would have been a travesty of justice had George Zimmerman been convicted.”
West added that he considers the death of Martin tragic, regardless of the verdict.
“I followed the trial and felt Don did a tremendous job, except for the bonehead mistake of making that knock-knock joke,” Curvin said. “Many attorneys, including me, have made the mistake of using humor at the wrong time. You just can’t make light of things in a trial like this one.”
Curvin said he personally disagrees with the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law that enabled defense lawyers to win an acquittal for Zimmerman.
“But as lawyers, I think Don and his co-counsel did an excellent job of utilizing that law in their defense,” Curvin said. “To people who are upset about the verdict, I would say they should take up the issue of the Stand Your Ground law with the state of Florida.”
Back in the late 1970s, West was an intelligent, hardworking law student with a dry sense of humor, recalled Abbott, Patricia and Curvin. The three men remember attending classes, studying, playing sports and drinking beers in local night spots with West.
West grew up about 140 miles away from Buffalo in Conneaut Lake, Pa. He had worked as a disc jockey at the CHUM-FM rock music station in Toronto before deciding to attend UB Law School.
“Don got his undergrad degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He was an excellent athlete, and he pitched for the baseball team at Penn,” Patricia recalled. “When he was at UB Law School, Don played hardball with me on a team called the Cheektowaga Travelers ... He was a few years older than most of the guys we hung out with, but he loved to go out with us and sometimes went on road trips with us.”
“I always said that he had that deep, dulcet baritone voice for FM radio,” Curvin said.
Patricia said he has always been impressed by West’s devotion to the law and his commitment to his clients.
“Over the years, Don has represented the worst of the worst. Serial killers, vicious criminals,” Patricia said. “I once asked him how he could do that. He told me, ‘I think every defendant deserves to have his story told to the jury. The common denominator of so many of these guys is that they were abused as children in one way or another. I want the jurors to see that these are people who needed help when they were little kids but didn’t get it.’ ”
With Zimmerman’s acquittal still receiving intense scrutiny and criticism, Patricia was asked if he worries about his friend.
“Yes, I do,” Patricia said. “For the rest of his life, when people in Florida see him walking around, they are going to say, ‘That’s the guy who represented George Zimmerman.’ ”