By Monica Land
WASHINGTON – Although he is said to be in hiding after his acquittal in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, trouble for George Zimmerman appears to be far from over.
The Justice Department said Sunday that it was restarting its investigation into Martin’s death in 2012 to consider possible separate hate crime charges against Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin was acquitted of all charges by a jury late Saturday.
The anticipation of an acquittal in the case prompted state and local officials to call for peace and calm prior to the reading of the verdict which came from the all female jury.
Their verdict sparked national outrage.
NAACP Florida State Conference President Adora Obi Nweze said: “We lost a young man due to senseless violence, but justice did not prevail. Last year we pushed for the arrest of George Zimmerman and a thorough investigation and trial. Today, we are still called to act. No one should be allowed to use this law to commit a senseless crime again.”
“We are outraged and heartbroken over [Saturday’s] verdict,” Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP said. “We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. 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.”
“The consciousness of our judiciary system was again examined, and the value of life explored,“ said Democratic Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson. “The verdict in the Zimmerman trial cast a spotlight on the real-life consequences of racial profiling and the challenges facing states like Florida, with overly broad ‘stand your ground laws.’ Provocative laws such as this one, embolden citizens to walk the streets and, as we saw in this Florida case, take on the roles of judge, jury and executioner. I urge all Americans to re-evaluate the need for stand your ground laws in light of this verdict.”
The federal inquiry, which was started shortly after the shooting last year but had been delayed while the state criminal trial in Florida was under way, was being restarted after civil rights leaders called on the Justice Department to re-examine the case. The New York Times reported that leaders said Sunday that they remained convinced that the shooting had a racial element. Martin, 17, was black.
“There is a pattern of George Zimmerman making dozens of calls to 911 over several years, frequently about young men of color,” Jealous said.
Zimmerman and his family have defended the shooting calling it an act of self-defense.
In a statement on Sunday, the Justice Department said that now that the state criminal trial was over, it would continue its examination of the circumstances in the shooting.
“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,” the statement said.
The department sets a high bar for such a prosecution.
Three former Justice Department officials who once worked in the department’s Civil Rights Division, which is handling the inquiry, said the federal government must clear a series of difficult legal hurdles before it could move to indict Zimmerman, the New York Times said.
“It is not enough if it’s just a fight that escalated,” said Samuel Bagenstos, who until 2011 served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the division. “The government has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully with a seriously culpable state of mind” to violate Mr. Martin’s civil rights.”
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. hinted at those challenges last year.
“We have to prove the highest standard in the law,” Mr. Holder said at a news conference in April 2012. “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.”
Criminal charges under federal hate crime law have increased significantly during the Obama administration. Between 2009 and 2012, the Justice Department prosecuted 29 percent more such cases than in the previous three fiscal years.
Earlier this year, three white men from Mississippi, Deryl Dedmon, John Aaron Rice and Dylan Butler each pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes in connection with the 2011 beating death of James Craig Anderson.
Anderson was black.
According to CNN, the men were among the first defendants to be prosecuted under the federal hate-crime statute that Obama signed in 2009 and the first to be prosecuted in a fatal attack.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said: “The Department of Justice will vigorously pursue those who commit racially motivated assaults and will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that those who commit such acts are brought to justice.”
But the Obama administration’s Justice Department has been cautious in its use of the expanded law. In 2010, for example, it turned down calls by civil rights leaders to file charges in New York City in the 2006 death of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old black man who was fatally shot by police officers outside a Queens club just hours before he was to be married.
“There aren’t that many of these cases, and it is not because the government is not being vigilant,” said William R. Yeomans, a former chief of staff in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “It is very difficult to establish a defendant’s state of mind.”
Political leaders, however, are hoping for a different outcome in the case of Martin.
“We should take this moment as an opportunity to reignite Dr. King’s dream of a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin. ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,’” said Thompson.
“[J]ustice failed Trayvon Martin and his family,” Roslyn M. Brock, Chairman of the NAACP said. “This case has re-energized the movement to end racial profiling in the United States.”