July 19, 2013
The world now knows that George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, was acquitted of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. The teen was walking inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, where he and his father were visiting his father’s fiancée.
The prosecution failed to convince a six-women jury that Zimmerman had “a depraved mind without regard for human life” when he shot Martin, which was required for a second-degree murder conviction. Prosecutors also failed to show that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification, which was required for a manslaughter conviction.
The NAACP in conjunction with MoveOn.org have an online petition asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Reportedly, over 50,000 have signed the petition.
The FBI did conduct an investigation of the shooting, but halted its investigation, deferring to Florida’s investigation and ultimate prosecution of Zimmerman. However, on July 15, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reaffirmed there is an “open investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin.”
If the DOJ does charge Zimmerman, it will be under the federal hate crimes acts, which states in pertinent part, “Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.”
There are a number of obstacles, however, facing the DOJ if it decides to charge Zimmerman with a hate crime. First, the DOJ must establish that Zimmerman “willfully” killed Martin. In criminal law statutes, willfully ordinarily means with a bad purpose or criminal intent. This is a much more difficult standard to establish than for a second degree murder or manslaughter conviction.
Additionally, the DOJ is usually very cautious where there is a state level trial.
Finally, and most importantly, a key element in a hate crime is establishing racial bias or hatred on the part of Zimmerman.
“‘Fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away,’” said assistant state attorney John Guy using the same words that Zimmerman told a police dispatcher as he pursued Martin. By saying these provocative words, was Zimmerman racially profiling Martin, or was Zimmerman referring to the spate of unsolved burglaries in the area where the culprits “always” got away with it? Regardless of the state court acquittal, many still believe Zimmerman’s actions were racially motivated.
But consider that during the FBI’s own investigation conducted last year, agents interviewed Zimmerman’s co-workers, neighbors, and other acquaintances, including his ex-fiancée, and found no evidence of racial bias. The FBI further reported that Zimmerman comes from a mixed-race family and does volunteer work helping underprivileged African-American children. Not only does he have black relatives, he has also donated his time tutoring black children.
Finally, lead Sanford police detective Chris Serino told the FBI that race was not behind the shooting. Rather, Serino believed Zimmerman’s action was based on Martin’s attire, the total circumstances of the encounter, and the previous burglaries in the community. Serino described Zimmerman as overzealous and as having a “little hero complex,” but not a racist.
In effect, the FBI has already cleared Zimmerman of a hate crime based on racial bias or hatred which, of course, does not mean racism does not exist in the U.S.
Given that there is no or conflicting evidence that Zimmerman had any intention of depriving Martin of any cognizable federal right, I would be very surprised if the DOJ filed a hate crime charge against him.
A much more likely second round of litigation would be a civil action by the Martin family against Zimmerman. A good comparison is the O.J. Simpson case, where Simpson was acquitted in the criminal trial but successfully sued in a civil trial by the families of the deceased.
The standard of proof in a civil trial is much lower and Zimmerman could be forced to testify. I am not sure the result would be any different in a civil trial, but Zimmerman could be found liable for the death of Martin.