Will George Zimmerman now face federal civil rights charges? That’s what some activists are urging in the wake of Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin.
Al Sharpton, for instance, quickly called upon the US Justice Department to file a suit alleging that Zimmerman’s racial profiling of Trayvon led to the latter’s death. The NAACP’s website crashed over the weekend due to the number of people trying to sign its online petition for the government to open a civil rights case.
“The most fundamental of civil rights – the right to life – was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin,” reads the petition.
Justice officials said Sunday they are reviewing the evidence in the Zimmerman trial as well as their own open investigation into the killing of Trayvon, which had been on hold while the state of Florida pursued its own case against neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman. It’s possible that Attorney General Eric Holder will shed some light on the government’s intentions on Tuesday, when he addresses the NAACP annual convention in Orlando, Fla.
There is precedent for the US to follow a high-profile acquittal in a racially charged case with a prosecution of its own. In 1993, the Justice Department filed civil rights charges against the four Los Angeles policemen who had been found not guilty of excessively beating African-American construction worker Rodney King after a high-speed car chase.
Unlike the L.A. policemen's state trial, the federal trial featured a racially mixed jury. Federal prosecutors excluded witnesses whose testimony had backfired in the first effort. Two of the four defendants were found guilty of violating Mr. King’s rights and sentenced to jail terms.
“This verdict provides justice,” said Justice Department Attorney Barry Kowalski at the time.
However, Justice Department officials would have to clear fairly high legal hurdles to win a similar conviction of Zimmerman.
First of all, Zimmerman is a private citizen. Unlike the L.A. policemen, he was not acting as a representative of any government entity. And as Attorney General Holder himself has said, prosecutors would have to show that Zimmerman had the “specific intent to do the crime with the requisite state of mind." In other words, the feds would need to prove that Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon primarily due to Trayvon's race.
But Zimmerman’s defense team would surely claim that the Florida trial produced evidence otherwise. State prosecutors themselves said they did not believe the case was about race.
That leads some legal analysts to predict that the Justice Department will decline to press further charges.
“In the end, I expect the Justice Department to demur. While Holder may make additional comments stressing the importance of this case and the seriousness with which federal officials are looking into possible federal crimes (as he has before), I think the Justice Department will decide it isn’t worth making this a federal case,” writes Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor, on the popular “Volokh Conspiracy” legal blog.
But Mr. Adler adds that Zimmerman remains vulnerable to civil charges filed by Trayvon's family. Civil cases have lower thresholds of proof than federal civil rights cases or criminal murder charges.
And other analysts aren’t so sure the Justice Department will walk away here. As in the Rodney King case, the feds could learn from the state’s mistakes to mount a successful civil rights prosecution.
“If Trayvon Martin had been born white he would be alive today.... If he had been white, he never would have been stalked by Zimmerman, there would have been no fight, no funeral, no trial, no verdict. It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty – far more than the man himself,” wrote Michelle Alexander, a civil rights advocate and an Ohio State University associate professor of law, in a Facebook post reacting to the Zimmerman verdict.