George Zimmerman was acquitted of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, but the Obama administration is investigating the possibility of bringing civil rights charges against the Florida man. The Justice Department would have to prove that Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, killed Martin, who was black, because of his race.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, pursued Martin through his gated community one night in February 2012 after finding the teen to be suspicious. He said he shot Martin in self-defense after the 17-year-old attacked him.
Protests were staged across the country following the announcement of the not guilty verdict, and the NAACP started a petition calling the administration to file charges. Civil rights groups say that justice was not served in the Florida trial, and the federal government must pursue the additional charges.
President Barack Obama released a cautious statement following the verdict acknowledging that the jury in the state trial had weighed the evidence, and made their decision.
"The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America," said Obama. "I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. "
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday Obama "has no opinion to express" about the possible Justice Department charges, but the administration is facing pressure from civil rights groups to pursue the charges. The legal case would be a complex one, proving challenging for the Justice Department to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt Zimmerman killed Martin not out of self defense, but because the teen was black.
"It's not enough to show that Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin because of his race," said former Justice Department civil rights prosecutor Rachel Harmon. "They would have to show that he attacked Martin for that reason. . . . Proving that motive is why it's hard to bring hate crime charges in general and why it is likely to be hard to bring them in this case."
Should the Justice Department pursue a civil rights case against George Zimmerman? Here is the Debate Club's take:
Horace Cooper Co-Chairman the Project 21
Andrew C. McCarthy Senior Fellow at National Review Institute
Rashad Robinson Executive Director of ColorofChange