WASHINGTON (TheBlaze/AP) — The Justice Department says it is looking into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin to determine whether federal prosecutors should file criminal civil rights charges now that George Zimmerman has been acquitted in the state case.
The department opened an investigation into Martin’s death last year but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed.
In a statement Sunday, the Justice Department said the criminal section of the civil rights division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida are continuing to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal probe, in addition to the evidence and testimony from the state trial.
The statement said that, in the government’s words, “experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People earlier called on the Justice Department to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman after he was cleared of all charges in the fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
“Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act,” read an online NAACP petition addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder, posted Saturday night after the verdict announcement.
The NAACP tweeted that it received more than 100,000 signatures in 2 1/2 hours after the petition was posted. The NAACP’s website was down much of Sunday morning, but the organization was directing users to MoveOn.org where the petition was also posted. (As of 4:15 p.m. EST, there are just over 156,000 signatures on the petition; the goal is 175,000, MoveOn notes.)
“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. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation,” the petition stated.
It’s almost never easy getting convictions in such high-profile prosecutions.
“The Justice Department would face significant challenges in bringing a federal civil rights case against Mr. Zimmerman,” said Alan Vinegrad, the former U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York. “There are several factual and legal hurdles that federal prosecutors would have to overcome: They’d have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr. Zimmerman attacked Mr. Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street.”
As to the last element, the confrontation between Zimmerman and the shooting victim occurred in a gated community, which may not fit the legal definition of a public facility.
Lauren Resnick, a former federal prosecutor in New York who successfully tried a man in the killing of an Orthodox Jew during the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, said the Justice Department could conceivably proceed under a theory that Zimmerman interfered with Martin’s right to walk down a public street based on his race or religion. But that would be challenging, she said, because it would require prosecutors to prove, among other things, that trailing Martin on the street constituted interference.
“One could argue it did, if it freaked him out and he couldn’t comfortably walk down the street – there’s an argument here,” said Resnick, who is now in private practice.
But she said federal prosecutors were likely to encounter the same hurdles as state prosecutors in establishing that Zimmerman was driven by racial animus and was the initial aggressor, as opposed to someone who acted in self-defense.
“When you have a fact pattern where one person’s alive, and one person’s not, and the person alive is the defendant, it’s hard to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Resnick.
Samuel Bagenstos, a former No. 2 official in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said: “This is an administration that hasn’t shied away from bringing hate crimes cases that are solid prosecutions based on the facts and the law, but from what I’ve seen this would be a very difficult case to prosecute federally because the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman acted because of Trayvon Martin’s race. If you’re trying to prove racial motivation, you are usually looking for multiple statements related to why he is engaging in this act of violence. I think it’s a difficult case to prove.”
This is a breaking news story. Updates will be added.