DOJ Probe: Convicting Zimmerman of Civil Rights Violations Will Be an Uphill Battle


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U.S. Attorney Eric Holder uld beourtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

U.S. Attorney Eric Holder experiences pressure to open federal case against George Zimmerman. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges that from the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012, the Department of Justice is considering bringing federal charges against the 29-year-old neighborhood watch member.

The NAACP and online petitioners are putting pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding the feds take action. But federal charges will face the same difficulties and more than the state charges did unless new evidence is presented that shows Zimmerman was motivated to shoot and kill Martin because of his race.

On July 15, 2013, two days after the Florida jury rendered its verdict, the Department of Justice confirmed the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, together with the FBI and Florida prosecutors, are examining the case to decide whether Zimmerman should face federal charges.

Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division

The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ was created in 1957 and contains both a criminal and civil section. The earliest prosecutions initiated by the Criminal Section occurred during the 1960s when persons were charged with violating the rights of civil rights workers and minorities in the South. Since that time, the jurisdiction of the Criminal Section has been constantly expanding. In 1968, the Criminal Section was given the power to prosecute persons accused of using force or threatening force to deprive others of such basic rights as housing and employment on the grounds of their race, religion, and national origin.

In 2010, the prosecution of ‘hate crimes’ was added, giving the federal government jurisdiction to prosecute such offenses as rights violations. It is this legislation that Zimmerman will most likely be prosecuted under should the DOJ decide to proceed with charges and a federal grand jury hands down an indictment.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009

Should charges be laid against Zimmerman, it will be under federal hate crimes legislation, known as the Matthew Shepard Act. This law covers violent crimes that are committed or attempted, and are carried out by the use of a firearm or other dangerous weapon. To constitute a civil rights violation, the DOJ must prove that the act took place because of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim, one of these characteristics being race. This particular legislation does not cover threats; only crimes where actual violence is carried out or attempted.

Should Zimmerman be charged with violating Martin’s civil rights, he would face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

The Chances of a Successful Federal Prosecution of Zimmerman

Federal prosecutors will have an even higher burden to meet in order to convict Zimmerman than the state of Florida faced. For the second-degree murder charge, prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, at the time he shot Martin, Zimmerman acted with ill will or spite. Considering Zimmerman was also acquitted of the lesser offense of manslaughter, the jurors were far from satisfied he acted out of ill will or spite.

The federal government will have to go further if they hope to obtain a conviction. Not only will they have to prove ill will and spite but they will have to prove Zimmerman had this ill will and spite because of Martin’s race.

Scott Sundby, a law professor at the University of Miami and former federal prosecutor, said given the state of the evidence, prosecutors will think long and hard before bringing any charges against Zimmerman. He said, “You’d have to prove that George Zimmerman was seeking out to commit the crime against Trayvon Martin, specifically because he was African-American.”

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