As Trayvon Martin supporters marched and rallied, prayed and protested the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the nation’s civil-rights leaders worked to define the next steps in a case stubbornly entrenched, for many, at the messy crossroads of race and criminal justice.
In the hours after Zimmerman was found not guilty by a six-member jury in the shooting death of Trayvon, civil-rights organizations quickly shifted the focus from a Seminole County courthouse in Central Florida to the U.S. Department of Justice, calling on the federal government to take action.
“A jury acquitted George Zimmerman, but we are not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin,’’ Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights groups, declared in a statement. A petition demanding Justice Department action on the NAACP website had generated more than 250,000 by Sunday evening.
The group’s strategy is also about making social and legislative changes by forcing the uncomfortable discussions about the role race plays in the criminal justice system.
“The trial, for some, sends the message that you can shoot first and have a high probability of prevailing under our self-defense laws. What is indisputable is that a 17-year-old boy who was carrying nothing but Skittles and a drink is dead,’’ said Tamara Rice Lave, a University of Miami associate professor of law. “Even if the federal government does not prevail, they would be sending the message that young men of color’s lives matter.’’
The Justice Department has a handful of criminal civil-rights laws at its disposal, and has filed charges in the past after state juries have returned acquittals.
Among them: the federal prosecution of a group of Los Angeles police officers after they were acquitted in state court of the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991, which sparked riots in that city. Two of the four officers were eventually convicted by a federal jury of violating King’s civil rights under “color of law” — but that law applies to those in law enforcement, and Zimmerman is a civilian.
In his case, it’s possible the Justice Department might consider using a different type of civil-rights law: the federal hate-crime statute. As in the King case, the double-jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit such a federal prosecution after a state acquittal, because it’s a different jurisdiction.
On Sunday, the Justice Department issued a statement that the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District and the FBI have an open federal investigation of Martin’s death, which Justice officials said they had first acknowledged last year.
The statement said authorities “continue to evaluate” evidence from both the federal investigation and state trial. It further noted that “experienced” U.S. 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” under Justice’s policy following a state trial.
In South Florida, legal experts said it’s going to be a formidable challenge for Attorney General Eric Holder to press forward with a hate-crime case against Zimmerman under U.S. civil rights laws, because Florida jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder.