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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.

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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.”

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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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