Before it was announced, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) correctly predicted that the U.S. Department of Justice would investigate George Zimmerman for civil rights violations following his acquittal in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Reid explained how Zimmerman is not off the hook, nor is Florida’s controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, which removes one’s duty to retreat and allows one to use force, including deadly force, in a self-defense situation.
“I’ll accept the verdict and take a look at the law that they have in Florida that was so unusual,” said Reid, a former trial attorney. “I think that’s up to the state, I think they should revisit that.”
“I think the Justice Department is going to take a look at this,” he added. “This isn’t over with and I think that’s good. That’s our system, it’s gotten better, not worse.”
Later on Sunday it was made official. The Justice Department, which had opened up an investigation last year into whether Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin when he followed him in the gated community in Sanford, Florida, would continue its probe into Zimmerman’s motivations.
The DOJ had put a halt on its investigation while the case was being tried in a Florida court.
“Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate,” the Justice Department said, adding that it will determine ‘‘whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.’’
News that the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ will be putting Zimmerman back in its crosshairs was uplifting news to those who wanted the neighborhood watch volunteer to be convicted of second-degree murder.
“We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict,” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said in a statement.
“We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”
Yet, due to the details of the case, many legal experts believe that federal prosecutors will face an uphill battle in convicting Zimmerman of civil rights violations.
‘‘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,” Samuel Bagenstos, a former No. 2 official in the DOJ’s civil rights division, told The Associated Press.
“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,’’ added Bagenstos.
In the past, the federal government has been successful at bringing charges against individuals who’ve been acquitted in state courts. Arguably, the most well known example is the case of Rodney King, a black motorist, who was beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers following a high-speed chase in 1991.
A California jury acquitted the officers on charges related to use of excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon, but, later on, federal prosecutors were successful at charging two of the officers for violating King’s civil rights.
Though, one could argue that the circumstances surrounding the King incident and the Zimmerman encounter with Martin are apples and oranges. For one thing, unlike Zimmerman-Martin, the full Rodney King encounter was caught on tape. For another, no one was fatally wounded, King survived the beating.
‘‘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,’’ former federal prosecutor Lauren Resnick told the AP.
Don West, one of Zimmerman’s attorney’s, told ABC’s Good Morning America that federal charges against his client are unlikely.
“I don’t think the federal investigation will develop into any sort of charges,” said West.
“We have received extensive information along within the discovery in our case of what the FBI has done. Absolutely nothing would suggest that this was a hate crime in any way whatsoever.”