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


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Will George Zimmerman be convicted of second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin? Image courtesy of State of Florida 9th Supplemental Discovery

Will the Federal Government charge George Zimmerman with a violation of Trayvon Martin’s civil rights? Image courtesy of State of Florida 9th Supplemental Discovery

Case of Police Officers in Rodney King Beating Not Applicable to Zimmerman

Many of those who are urging the DOJ to bring charges against Zimmerman are using the case of the four police officers who were charged in King’s 1991 beating as an example of how a federal prosecution for civil rights violations can be successful after a state jury has returned verdicts of not guilty. But the federal law used in the prosecution of the Los Angeles police officers cannot be used in the prosecution of Zimmerman.

Rodney King Case

On March 3, 1991, King, an African-American, led police in Los Angeles on a high speed chase. He was finally apprehended and after leaving his car, and was beaten by four police officers while others stood around and did nothing to interfere. The beating was videotaped by a resident in a nearby apartment.

Later that month, a federal grand jury handed down indictments against four white officers. The case was moved to Simi Valley and on April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted all four defendants of beating King. The jury’s verdict set off serious rioting in LA.

On August 4, 1992, a federal grand jury indicted all four officers on charges of violating King’s civil rights. On April 16, 1993, two of the four officers were found guilty of a rights violation while the other two were acquitted. The guilty officers were later sentenced to 30 months in prison.

But the law that was used to prosecute the LA police officers is not applicable to Zimmerman. The officers were charged under Section 242, Title 18 of the United States Code. Under that section, it is an offense for any person acting under the ‘color of law’ to willfully deprive someone of their civil rights.

Color of law applies only to federal, state and local officials who are acting within their actual authority or who are pretending to act in the course of their official duties.

Although Zimmerman has often been described as a “wannabe cop”, he was not a government official and therefore could not be acting under color of law that evening or any other time.

Although race was an obvious factor in King’s 1991 beating, it was not necessary under the color of law section for the prosecution to prove King was beaten because he was an African American.

Under federal hate crimes legislation, however, prosecutors must prove Zimmerman shot and killed Martin specifically because he was black.

Zimmerman Case: Federal Prosecutors Will Have a High Burden to Meet

Prosecutors in Zimmerman’s state trial had a high onus of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that not only did Zimmerman have ill will or malice when he shot Martin, but they had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not acting in self defense when he fired the fatal shot.

These same burdens will have to be met by federal prosecutors. But in a civil rights violation trial, the government will have the additional burden of proving Zimmerman shot Martin specifically because of Martin’s race. Certainly if there was any evidence of this in the trial that has ended, it was far from sufficient. An analysis of the trial tends to show Zimmerman was acquitted of both charges because the evidence to convict was simply not there.

Zimmerman: Depriving Martin of Civil Rights?

To obtain a conviction on a charge of depriving Martin of his civil rights, prosecutors will need additional evidence. But even evidence of past acts showing Zimmerman had made racial comments in the past or had shown racist tendencies will not be sufficient. A jury must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time Martin was shot, Zimmerman was motivated to kill Martin because of the teen’s race.

The political advantages of bringing federal charges against Zimmerman far outweigh the legal justification for conducting another trial.


United States Department of Justice. Criminal Section History. (2013). Accessed July 16, 2013.

Legal Information Institute. 18 USC, S 249-Hate crimes act. (2013). Accessed July 16, 2013.

Washington Post. Holder calls Martin killing ‘tragic, unnecessary;’ experts say a federal case faces challenges. (2013). Accessed July 16, 2013.

CNN. A timeline of events in Rodney King’s life. (2012). Accessed July 16, 2013.

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