George Zimmerman charged: Will that affect civil rights investigation?

News that George Zimmerman was charged with murder won't sway the ongoing federal civil rights investigation, which is looking for evidence that Zimmerman was motivated by racial hatred.

Cliff Owen/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington Wednesday that touched on the federal civil rights investigation into the Trayvon Martin case.

How did President Obama find out that George Zimmerman had been charged with second-degree murder in the Trayvon Martin shooting case? Just like an ordinary citizen: He learned it from the media.

That’s what White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Thursday, anyway. Obama has not been receiving daily updates on the case, according to Mr. Carney.

“I wasn’t with him when he learned about this. I believe he just learned about it from the news,” said Carney at a White House briefing, adding that the president’s practice is to read newspapers, either in dead-tree format or online.

Carney was mum, however, on a different aspect of the Martin case related to the executive branch: whether the charge filed against Mr. Zimmerman by Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey will make a difference in the Justice Department’s own ongoing investigation of the case.

It’s more than likely it won’t. While the FBI and the Justice Department have been assisting Florida investigators, according to US Attorney General Eric Holder, the main aspect of the Justice probe has been to determine whether a civil rights crime, as defined by federal law, occurred in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26.

“Now, although I cannot share where our current efforts will lead us from here, I can assure you that in this investigation and in all cases, we will examine the facts and the law. If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action,” Mr. Holder said yesterday, during an appearance before the National Action Network, a group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, in Washington.

What Holder did not say before this organization is that bringing such a federal charge against Zimmerman would be difficult. The Justice Department would have to believe it could prove that the attacker in the incident was motivated by racial hatred.

“For a federal hate crime, we have to prove the highest standard in the law,” said Holder on Wednesday, during a separate Justice Department press conference. “You know, something that was reckless, that was negligent, does not meet that standard. We have to show that there was specific intent to do the crime with the requisite state of mind.”

Meanwhile, some conservative commentators think the Justice Department should be investigating a possible civil rights crime committed against George Zimmerman, instead of by him.

The New Black Panther Party, a fringe hate group disowned by founders of its 1960s namesake, in the days after the Trayvon Martin shooting promised a $10,000 “bounty” to anyone who made a citizen's arrest of Zimmerman.

“So, why is Eric Holder not investigating the New Black Panther Party?” said Fox News host Sean Hannity on Wednesday on his show.

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