Zimmerman won't get his gun back yet, per Justice Department. What's up? (+video)

The US Justice Department wants the George Zimmerman gun and other physical evidence in the Trayvon Martin shooting to be held intact, pending its civil rights probe. That might signal stepped-up activity by the feds, but analysts see reason to doubt they will ultimately file charges.

By , Staff writer

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    Camille Quinones Miller holds a placard as she chants slogans during a march Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif., to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Widespread protests are turning up the pressure on the US Justice Department to charge Zimmerman with civil rights violations.
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George Zimmerman won’t get his gun back by the end of the month, if US Attorney General Eric Holder has his way.

Although top US officials have hinted that a federal hate crime charge against Mr. Zimmerman would be hard to prove, Mr. Holder’s Department of Justice on Thursday appeared to step up its open investigation into the Trayvon Martin shooting by placing a hold on all the evidence in the case, including the Kel-Tec 9 mm pistol that Zimmerman used to shoot Trayvon, an unarmed black teenager.

After his acquittal in a criminal trial on July 13, Florida Judge Debra Nelson told Zimmerman that he “has no more business in front of this court,” which put into motion the return of his gun by the state.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Trayvon Martin case? Take our quiz.

The Justice Department's request that police in Sanford, Fla., hold onto physical evidence in the case is likely to ratchet up what’s becoming a politicized, even personal, conflict pitting Holder against Zimmerman and his sympathizers. Pro-Zimmerman forces are especially incensed that Holder personally met with civil rights leaders in early 2012 as they were organizing “Justice for Trayvon” rallies after the Feb. 26 shooting.

At the least, the Justice Department's move to put a hold on Zimmerman’s gun may further inflame long-standing conflict between an administration that has backed proposed gun-control laws and gun owners who view some of the Obama administration’s actions as extrajudicial, even tyrannical.

Zimmerman’s acquittal has prompted protests around the country, including some in Los Angeles and Oakland that turned violent. There’s widespread pressure on Holder, especially from the black community, to bring new federal charges against Zimmerman.

Earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed as ridiculous a question from a reporter about whether Zimmerman, who has received death threats, actually deserves federal protection given that Holder and President Obama have contributed to public passion about the case.

Mr. Obama, America’s first black president, said in the wake of the shooting: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Some Americans considered him to be fanning racial passion into a case that ultimately turned out to be about self-defense rights.

“The president commented on the death of a young man.... He didn’t comment about the disposition of an investigation or a case,” countered Mr. Carney.

Zimmerman was acquitted on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges after a 16-month national ordeal that began when the volunteer neighborhood watch captain followed and then killed 17-year-old Trayvon after a fight.

The original police decision not to charge Zimmerman, who claimed he acted in self-defense, led to rallies and protests nationwide. They subsided after a special state prosecutor bypassed the grand jury and charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

The charge implied that Zimmerman had “evil in his heart” when he pursued Trayvon, but a six-woman jury – five of whom were white – didn’t agree. After the verdict, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called Florida “kind of an apartheid state.”

Florida had informed Zimmerman that, under Florida law, the gun would be returned to him by month’s end. The topic of the gun, to some, has served as a reminder that Zimmerman continues to have self-defense concerns after becoming someone “who will have to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life,” according to his brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr. His brother has called the federal investigation a “witch hunt.”

Records released by the court under Florida’s transparency laws show that FBI agents interviewed about three dozen people who knew Zimmerman personally, and none said the 29-year-old insurance company fraud investigator had ever shown signs of being racist. To win a conviction under a 2009 federal hate crimes law, prosecutors would have to show that Zimmerman acted out of racial bias and violated Trayvon’s civil rights when he decided to get out of his car and follow the youth.

During the trial, Judge Nelson barred the term “racial profiling” from the courtroom. The only race-tinged testimony was that Trayvon, while talking on the phone with a friend, called Zimmerman a “creepy-ass cracker” after he noticed he was being followed.

"Cracker" is considered to be a pejorative aimed at poor Southern whites, especially in Florida. But Rachel Jeantel, who heard Trayvon say the phrase, suggested to defense attorney Don West that it wasn’t a racist term, just like the word “nigga” isn’t always racist, depending on who uses it. In a July 15 interview with Piers Morgan on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight," Ms. Jeantel said what Travyon actually said was "cracka," a reference to "people who are acting like they're a police or security guard." 

Holder told an NAACP gathering in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday that his department’s investigation is open and ongoing. But the way Holder framed the talk – in part by relating his own personal experiences, including talks he’s had with his son about racial discrimination – prompted some legal experts to suggest that Holder is, in fact, in the process of backing off the case.

“The fact that Holder is talking about this, that he had to talk to his son and how he himself was profiled, I think that’s probably an indication that they’re not going to bring a case,” says Darren Hutchinson, a civil rights law expert at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Personalizing a case “is not something a prosecutor would do before bringing that type of case. So when he’s personalizing it now, it’s a political thing … where he’s planting seeds along the way to appear sympathetic. The fact is, there isn’t that much there in terms of a federal case.”

Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative member of the US Commission on Civil Rights, an advisory civil rights watchdog group, told CBS News this week that, “the Justice Department itself has signaled they don’t have the evidence” to bring federal hate crime charges against Zimmerman, “… [so] let’s stop demagoguing this issue.”

Among the items the Justice Department wants local police hold onto are the gun, Trayvon’s clothes, the bag of Skittles found in the teenager’s pocket, and a cellphone.

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