The Department of Justice announced today that it will not seek federal civil rights violation charges against George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Following the acquittal of Zimmerman in July, 2013, the Justice Department began its investigation on whether there was sufficient evidence to charge and convict Zimmerman under federal statutes. In the end, due to the high standard in these cases, Attorney General Eric Holder found that the evidence would not meet the standard of proof. While the evidence did not warrant federal criminal charges, the death of Trayvon Martin sadly remains a case that is still a bitter pill to swallow for many persons in the African American community. Trayvon Martin, armed with only iced tea and Skittle candy was approached and killed for being in a Sanford, Florida neighborhood where George Zimmerman believed that he did not belong. Wearing a hoodie, he was walking back to the home of his father’s fiancé at the time after leaving a convenience store when Zimmerman encountered him.
The Justice Department, according to the statement issued today, reviewed what amounted to thousands of pages from the trial transcript, interviewed 75 witnesses, reviewed previous criminal encounters by Zimmerman and conducted biomechanical expert analysis to assess Zimmerman’s description and account of the incident to see if there were sufficient grounds to charge Zimmerman. Unlike the state criminal case, the federal statutes under review would have required a higher finding of evidence that Zimmerman willfully which means knowingly knew he was violating the law when he approached Trayvon and ultimately shot him. In addition, the statutes under the Hate Crime Act and one involving housing rights required that the federal government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman committed the crime because Trayvon Martin was black. There had to be a racial motive, in this case, for the Justice Department to proceed under the federal statutes. The Department of Justice pursued the actions of Zimmerman from beginning point of the encounter to the killing to see if any evidence existed to make its case.
While many persons believe that Zimmerman did have his encounter due to Trayvon Martin’s race, proving it beyond a reasonable doubt was going to be an insurmountable task. In the end analysis, proving that George Zimmerman knew his actions were illegal or unlawful and proceeded anyway to commit threatening acts and murder due to Trayvon Martin’s race was too high of a standard for the Justice Department to meet. Coupled with the fact that Zimmerman was Hispanic, of Peruvian background, was also a factor for consideration. And let’s not forget that Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws on self-defense would factor into Zimmerman’s motives, if a trial occurred. However, Zimmerman’s attorneys are wrong with their assertions as to why the case could not be brought. Mark O’Mara and Don West said that Zimmerman was not a racist as he had black friends and tutored two black kids. That really has absolutely no bearing on whether or not he committed the crime against Trayvon Martin due to his race. The federal law requires only proof of the specific incident in question as being a willful crime committed due to a racial motive. Having a black friend does not mean that Zimmerman could not be charged under the federal statute.
The case of Trayvon Martin did spark a racial conversation. With the acquittal of Zimmerman and now the end of the federal case, the race conversation must continue. It won’t bring back Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Eric Garner. The race conversation must be one that continues beyond this case.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who appears frequently in the media addressing issues on law and politics at the intersection of race, gender and class.