Hilary Shelton, the director to the NAACP’s Washington bureau, had never seen anything like this.
Fifteen minutes after a jury handed down a not-guilty verdict to George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the NAACP posted and promoted a petition to urge the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Within three hours, more than 100,000 people signed their name to the petition. By Sunday afternoon, the number of signatures approached half a million.
Zimmerman, in Shelton’s words, “got away with murder.” And now, he says, there is proof that there are almost half a million people who are “just as outraged as we are.”
This is how civil-rights activists want to make sure Zimmerman doesn’t go unpunished — by urging Holder to open a case that pursues purported violations against Martin’s civil rights in his killing. They say that Martin was the victim of racial profiling and, potentially, a hate crime in Martin’s killing.
But legal experts question whether the Justice Department would pursue such a case. If it chooses to do so, it could run the risk of putting itself ahead of the normal legal process. And it could reignite sensitive racial issues at a time when President Barack Obama urged “calm reflection” from the nation in the wake of the verdict.
“That to me is the biggest tell,” said Randy Reep, a criminal defence attorney in Jacksonville, Fla. “When the person who controls it all is talking about healing … that probably foretells that the DoJ is going to have no interest in picking this up.”
So far, a handful of civil-rights groups have joined the NAACP in calling for the Justice Department to take a closer look at the case — something it said it would “continue to evaluate” in a statement on Sunday. In addition to the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law centre, the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the National Urban League, among others, have spoken out. They’ll also have prominent black leaders like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton mounting a public push.
These groups say that a “not guilty” verdict in the trial doesn’t necessarily mean that Zimmerman is completely “innocent” and not whatesoever at fault in Martin’s death. There is a difference, they say, between the jury determining that Zimmerman’s actions were justified and determining their own “reasonable doubt” in the case.
Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, pointed to the Department of Justice’s handling of the case involving Rodney King and the Los Angeles Police Department officers who were acquitted by a mostly white jury of all charges involving his beating.
The DoJ followed up on that case by investigating whether the officers had violated King’s civil rights. Eventually, a federal jury found two of the four officers guilty on one count of violating King’s civil rights and were sentenced to 30 months in a federal correctional camp.
“We do not believe justice has been done,” Morial told Business Insider in a phone interview on Sunday.
“The resources of federal government will allow them to conduct a more thorough investigation than the state. There were concerns that they didn’t do an effective crime scene investigation. … The Justice Department has significant resources that could be utilized.”
In a statement emailed to Business Insider on Sunday, the Justice Department responded to calls from the groups:
“The Department of Justice’s Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial. Experienced federal 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 in accordance with the Department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.”
Legal experts like Reed, however, don’t think the DoJ will cave to what is now mounting pressure from groups seeking justice.
He predicts that Holder will view it as too risky even if he did personally want to pursue the case. In the end, there’s no guarantee that civil-rights groups would get what they want. And the predicted tension it would ignite on both sides would make such a case not worth that risk for an already heavily scrutinized Department of Justice.
“It would be inflammatory without a likely positive outcome,” Reed said. “If the goal was to convict Zimmerman, state court was right place to do it. And there, very talented prosecutors didn’t come out successful.”
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