George Zimmerman may have been acquitted in a court of law over the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, but that doesn’t mean he’s off the hook with the Obama administration.
In televised comments Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed the Department of Justice continues to investigate whether it can still nab Zimmerman on civil rights charges.
“We must not, as we have too often in the past, let this opportunity pass,” Holder said. “We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents.”
“And we will never stop working to ensure that in every case, in every circumstance and in every community,” he concluded, “justice must be done.”
Holder stopped short of arguing Zimmerman was actually guilty, but his comments reaffirmed a statement from the Department of Justice Sunday that the investigation continues.
“The Department of Justice’s Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial,” the statement said. “Experienced federal prosecutors will [now] 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 in accordance with the Department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that President Obama, however, would keep his distance from the investigation, adding that the case will be “evaluated by the professionals at the Department of Justice.”
The department has used federal civil rights law before to pursue defendants who had been acquitted at the state level, most notably in the Rodney King case, in which a federal grand jury indicted four police officers on charges of violating King’s civil rights, stemming from an altercation during King’s arrest on March 3, 1991. Two of the officers were eventually found guilty and sentenced to prison.
A federal hate crime, for example, could be filed against Zimmerman under a statute that bars “willfully” causing injury to someone “because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin of any person.”
Yet federal prosecutors may struggle to accumulate convincing evidence, as documents released last week reveal the FBI was unable to prove racial bias was a motivating factor in the shooting of Martin. Investigators, in fact, interviewed dozens of Zimmerman’s neighbors and co-workers, but none said Zimmerman had expressed racial animus prior to the shooting.
Even the lead detective in the case, Sanford Det. Chris Serino, the Miami Herald reports, told agents he thought Zimmerman profiled Trayvon because of his attire and the circumstances – but not his race.
Serino saw Zimmerman as “having [a] little hero complex, but not as a racist.”
Florida defense attorney Brian Tannebaum told Fox News he doesn’t foresee a federal case, simply because the prosecution would have so little evidence.
“There’s been an acquittal,” Tannebaum said. “The evidence has not changed. It’s not like the feds are going to go in and find more evidence.”
Holder’s Department of Justice, however, has been under intense pressure to bring Zimmerman back to trial.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and other House Democrats called a press conference on Monday to urge the department to “conduct an immediate and thorough investigation,” and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is pressuring the DOJ to continue its probe by posting a petition on the website MoveOn.org.
“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,” the group wrote.
Notably, after his comments Monday, Fox News reports Attorney General Eric Holder plans to speak at the NAACP convention on Tuesday.