Federal authorities won’t be charging the Sanford neighborhood watchman who gunned down Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin in a case that sparked national debate on racial profiling and self-defense laws.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday that prosecutors could not meet the “high standard” to charge George Zimmerman with a federal hate crime.
“This young man’s premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface,” Holder said in a statement Tuesday. “We, as a nation, must take concrete steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.”
The decision was no surprise – a state jury acquitted Zimmerman of murder in July 2013 and legal observers long predicted the case did not meet the bill for federal prosecution. But Martin’s family was nonetheless saddened by the news.
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“Although we are disappointed in the government findings, we remain poised to do everything in our power to make sure that senseless violence is eradicated and no parent or community has to go through what we’ve had to endure on a daily basis,” the family said in a statement.
Back in February 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon was visiting his father and had walked to the store to buy Skittles and an iced tea. As Trayvon walked back, Zimmerman called police to report a “suspicious” black male not unlike others who had recently burglarized the complex.
A dispatcher told Zimmerman he did not need to follow the teen.
But Zimmerman, lawfully carrying a concealed pistol, nonetheless followed. During a violent scuffle Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon with a single bullet to the chest.
Zimmerman, who suffered injuries to his nose and back, was not initially arrested as Sanford police deferred to prosecutors.
Outraged, the boy’s relatives and supporters soon mounted vigils and massive rallies spurred by social media, newspaper and television coverage. Zimmerman insisted that he never racially profiled Trayvon, and fired only to protect himself as his head was pounded onto the concrete.
Prosecutors – in a state where lawmakers had eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat in the face of a threat – could not disprove that Zimmerman acted in self-defense.
After more than three weeks of trial, jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. They also declined to convict on a lesser charge of manslaughter.
After the acquittal, the FBI and federal prosecutors mounted an exhaustive investigation into Zimmerman, reviewing the evidence in the state case as well independently interviewing 75 witnesses. They looked at his numerous brushes with the law after his acquittal – and even hired a “biomechanical expert” to evaluate Zimmerman’s descriptions of the violent struggle.
But in a statement released Tuesday, federal investigators could not prove that Zimmerman targeted Trayvon willfully based on is “actual or perceived race.”
“Our decision not to pursue federal charges does not condone the shooting that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and is based solely on the high legal standard applicable to these cases,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, of the Civil Rights Division.
It is relatively rare for federal authorities to charge someone who has been acquitted in a state case. The most prominent example: the Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of motorist Rodney King, case that sparked devastating riots in 1992.
Generally, civil rights violations cases have usually been lodged against police officers acting “under the color of law.” In 1990, a federal jury acquitted Miami police officers of violating the civil rights of a drug dealer who was beaten to death, though several were later convicted of obstruction.
But the hurdle in Zimmerman’s case was proving his intent, said former federal prosecutor Richard Scruggs, who used to oversee civil rights cases in Miami.
“You would have to prove Zimmerman knew it was illegal to use a deadly weapon against Trayvon because of his race, and decided to do it anyway,” Scruggs said. “The way the facts developed at trial, there was just no proof of that what so ever.”
Dan Gelber, another former Miami federal prosecutor, said the decision was no surprise.
“The Justice Department does not like doing second prosecutions on state offenses,” Gelber said. “Still, it’s very disappointing. It just doesn’t seem right that an unarmed child can be gunned down.”