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Trayvon Martin case: US could bring hate crime charge against George Zimmerman

The Justice Department could bring a hate crime charge against George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin if there is sufficient evidence the slaying was motivated by racial bias.

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Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who has been appearing at rallies with Martin's parents to call for an arrest, said the Justice Department should investigate the case as a hate crime.

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"Any time you have a pattern of engagement based on someone's having a particular group in mind, that qualifies for hate crime inquiry," Sharpton told The Associated Press.

The Justice Department's civil rights division and the FBI are conducting their own probe in the case, and a federal hate crimes charge could come out of that no matter what state authorities do. The hate crimes law carries a potential life prison sentence when a death is involved.

Tibbs said one key is determining whether Martin's race alone was the reason Zimmerman decided to follow him in his vehicle. Martin, who was from Miami, was staying in the neighborhood with his father and father's fiancée and was returning from a convenience store with Skittles and a can of iced tea when the confrontation took place. He was not armed.

"He was not suspicious. What makes him suspicious in the moment is the fact that he was black. If Trayvon Martin was white, would any of this have happened?" Tibbs said.

If Zimmerman were a police officer or a government official, he could be prosecuted by the Justice Department for using his official authority to violate Martin's civil rights. That was the case made against Los Angeles police officers who had been acquitted in state court of beating Rodney King, which sparked huge riots. Two of the four officers were eventually convicted of federal civil rights violations.

But Zimmerman was a volunteer watch captain, and even though he had a permit to carry his Kel Tek 9mm semiautomatic handgun, he didn't have any official law enforcement or government authority.

Another possibility is an investigation of the Sanford Police Department itself, including questions about whether any evidence was destroyed or covered up, or whether there has been a pattern of problems involving black people. City officials insist they did an appropriate and thorough investigation, but if such violations occurred federal prosecutors could bring civil rights conspiracy charges against anyone responsible. Bonaparte did acknowledge last week that the police department has had issues with the city's African-American residents.

For instance, in 2010, it took a month for investigators to arrest and charge the son of a police lieutenant who was accused of knocking out a homeless black man. The attack was captured on video.

"This police department, how they've handled this case and how we are hearing of other cases, needs a thorough review by the Justice Department," Sharpton said.

Ultimately, much depends on the results of the state grand jury investigation. If Zimmerman ultimately is charged in Martin's death, the Justice Department may not bring its own separate case depending on the outcome of any trial.

The mere presence of federal investigators could ensure a more thorough probe, said University of Florida law professor Michael Siegel.

"A lot of times when these things are getting potentially explosive, they want to step in and say, 'We're looking over the shoulder of the locals here,'" said Siegel, a former federal prosecutor. "That often helps calm the public down. It does put some pressure on the local law enforcement to take a second look and do it right."

Associated Press writer Suzette Laboy contributed from Sanford, Fla.

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