MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – The U.S. Department of Justice is reportedly reviewing evidence to determine whether criminal civil rights charges are warranted against George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin.
Shortly after Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder in Martin’s death, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous created an online petition which called on the DOJ to launch a civil rights investigation “against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.”
Many legal experts, however, see major barriers to a a federal prosecution including the burden of proving that Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch leader, was motivated by racial animosity.
“The Justice Department would face significant challenges in bringing a federal civil rights case against Mr. Zimmerman,” said Alan Vinegrad, the former U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York. “There are several factual and legal hurdles that federal prosecutors would have to overcome: They’d have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr. Zimmerman attacked Mr. Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street.”
Last March, the department opened an investigation into Martin’s death but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed. It said in a statement Sunday that the criminal section of its civil rights division, the FBI and federal prosecutors in Florida are continuing to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, plus evidence and testimony from the state trial.
Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday night in a February 2012 shooting that tapped into a national debate about racial profiling, equal justice and self-defense. Civil rights leaders, Martin’s parents and many others said Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin when he followed the teenager through a gated townhouse community and shot him, but Zimmerman said he was physically assaulted by Martin and shot the teenager in self-defense.
Though the Justice Department does have an established history of using federal civil rights laws to try to convict defendants who have been previously acquitted in related state cases, experience shows it’s almost never easy getting guilty verdicts in such high-profile prosecutions. In this case, federal prosecutors pursuing a civil rights case would need to establish, among other things, that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animosity, even though race was barely mentioned at the state trial.
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