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George Zimmerman (right) with his attorney Mark O’Marduring court hearing April 2012.  |  Gary W. Green/ap

George Zimmerman (right) with his attorney Mark O’Mara during a court hearing in April 2012. | Gary W. Green/ap

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Updated: September 29, 2013 6:43AM

Going to trial can be a financial sentence of death for average people even if they are acquitted. Being set free doesn’t mean much if every nickel a defendant ever saved — or could hope to save in the future — has gone to legal fees.

To right that wrong, Illinois should consider a law similar to a Florida statute that’s in the news this week because George Zimmerman’s lawyer has said he will ask that state to cover up to $300,000 in legal expenses.

In Florida, if a defendant is acquitted, the law requires the state to pay his or her legal costs other than lawyers’ fees. In the case of Zimmerman, who after a five-week trial last month was found not guilty of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, that would include expert witnesses, travel, depositions, photocopies and even an animated 3-D video that jurors saw during closing arguments.

Zimmerman is hardly the poster child for legal reform. His not guilty verdict outraged many Americans. When he was stopped for speeding in Texas recently, he asked that classic obnoxious question: “Do you know who I am?” And just last weekend, according to TMZ, Zimmerman shopped for a rifle at the same manufacturer of the Kel-Tach 9mm pistol he used to shoot Martin, a move even his legal team called a public relations disaster.

But whatever one thinks about Zimmerman, it makes sense for Florida to help out with his legal fees. This is a real problem in the American justice system — federal or local prosecutors can destroy a person financially just by bringing charges and forcing the person to defend himself. The government has unlimited resources, and a defendant who doesn’t qualify for a public defender does not. If a defendant is acquitted, it seems only fair that he or she be reimbursed for reasonable legal expenses.

It would be a hard sell politically to go all the way and reimburse freed defendants for their lawyers’ fees, because not all acquitted defendants are innocent. But adopting a version of the Florida law is feasible, and it would help level the playing field.

It also would incentivize prosecutors to be more careful before they charge someone in a dubious case. Earlier this month, for example, a Cook County prosecutor resigned, saying she was demoted and suspended without pay for dropping charges in a flawed but politically sensitive case. We’re not saying that’s what happened here — Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office has denied it — but clearly the risk of paying out extra legal fees at the end would discourage prosecutors from barreling ahead with cases in which the evidence isn’t there.

Would that create a chilling effect for prosecutors? Would they hesitate to proceed with a case unless it was a guaranteed winner? Would some victims find they are not being served by the criminal justice system?

Yes, that might happen in a small number of cases. But let’s acknowledge there already is a chilling effect — on defendants. Lawyers will tell you of people who, when they find themselves in the cross hairs of an investigation, ask their attorneys just to get the best deal they can get because it costs too much to plead not guilty. That’s one reason the vast majority of cases end with a plea bargain instead of a day in court. That’s not the way our legal system is supposed to work.

Would this cost money? Yes. But it is only fair — and taxpayers are shelling out anyway. Two years ago, the Better Government Association documented $214 million in taxpayer-backed settlements for wrongful convictions, and tens of millions of new costs have been added since then.

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