While the reaction to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin killing resembles the backlash against the 1992 not guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating, legal analysts said there is little likelihood of another successful federal prosecution on civil rights or hate crimes charges.
Although the neighborhood watch volunteer still could face a wrongful-death civil lawsuit brought by Trayvon’s family — echoes of another bitterly disputed criminal verdict: the O.J. Simpson case — the key issue in the King case, of state law enforcement officers abusing their power, is plainly not present with Mr. Zimmerman.
“In the King case, it was more of an imperative for the federal government to get involved because state actors were accused of wrongdoing,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California. “That’s why we have a federal government.”
He noted that while the four defendants in the King case — Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno — were Los Angeles police officers, Mr. Zimmerman is a private citizen. The officers were acquitted in state court of filing a false report, assault with a deadly weapon and excessive force under color of authority in the beating of King, which was videotaped and widely replayed.
The 1992 acquittal set off three days of rioting in Los Angeles during which 52 people were killed and more than $1 billion in damage was caused.
Mr. Koon and Mr. Powell then were retried on federal civil rights charges, convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. The Justice Department charged that the officers violated King’s civil rights by repeatedly kicking and beating him after a high-speed chase. Two of the four Los Angeles officers were convicted and served prison sentences.
PHOTOS: Photos from the George Zimmerman verdict
While the federal government has strengthened its hate crime laws since then, giving it another avenue to retry state criminal cases, applying them to Trayvon’s death faces significant legal hurdles.
Montre Carodine, a law professor at the University of Alabama Law School who specializes in U.S. race relations, says the burden of proof in a federal hate crime prosecution would require the Justice Department to show that Mr. Zimmerman killed Trayvon because of his race, and that such a standard is “higher than what state prosecutors were unable to prove in a second-degree murder case.”
Although the state is not legally required to prove a motive in a murder case, prosecutors presented no evidence during the trial that Mr. Zimmerman was motivated by racist hatred for Trayvon.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a lawyer, investigative reporter and former prosecutor in Washington, said the 911 tape in the Zimmerman case “clearly demonstrates” that his actions were not motivated by race, but rather clothing.
Mr. Shapiro told The Washington Times that when asked what the suspicious person looked like, Mr. Zimmerman replied that he was wearing a hoodie.
“Obviously, wearing a hoodie in 90 degrees to conceal your face is suspect. The dispatcher is the one who asked about race and Zimmerman said he didn’t know what race the kid was — he says, ‘I don’t know maybe black?’ Has anyone made that point?”
Mr. Shapiro said an argument can be made that if the Justice Department is going to investigate anyone in this case, it could look at Florida state officials, who appointed a special prosecutor in response to weeks of demonstrations after police let Mr. Zimmerman go free and local prosecutors declined to press charges.
Such a probe, Mr. Shapiro said, could determine their “true motive and basis for superseding local law enforcement and pushing prosecution.”
Meanwhile, the FBI failed to locate any evidence of racial bias by Mr. Zimmerman prior to the February 2012 shooting.
Sanford police Detective Chris Serino told FBI agents that he thought Mr. Zimmerman had a “little hero complex, but not as a racist.” He also told agents that Mr. Zimmerman became suspicious of Trayvon because of what he was wearing, noting that several burglars in the neighborhood had been identified as wearing hoodies.
Just as a federal hate crimes prosecution appears unlikely, Mr. Rosenbaum said, the Martin family would not have grounds for a federal civil rights lawsuit because of the lack of involvement of a state governmental entity. The most likely recourse, he said, would be for the family to file a wrongful-death case in state court in Florida.
“The argument would be that the family did not get a fair opportunity to develop details of the case, and that notwithstanding the lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt they are entitled to an opportunity to depose and question Mr. Zimmerman, who would not have the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent available to him,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.
Of the parallels between the Zimmerman and the King cases, he said the King case “sent shock waves through Los Angeles and the world.” Although Trayvon’s death is a tragedy that warrants national attention, he said, it nevertheless “reflects the fact that the legal system doesn’t provide legal answers to the problem of racial hatred.”
Ms. Carodine agreed with Mr. Rosenbaum’s analysis of the racial implications of the Zimmerman case and the limited avenues of recourse available to the Justice Department.
She noted that a civil lawsuit would give the Martin family an opportunity to question Mr. Zimmerman in court, but the value of the case could be limited by the fact that the defendant might not have enough money to make it worth the time for a lawyer or the family.
“But it certainly is easier with a lower standard of proof, and even if Mr. Zimmerman does not have deep pockets now he could, if, say, he entered into a book deal that increased his wealth,” she said.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he had concerns about “the tragic, unnecessary shooting death” of the black teenager and vowed that the Justice Department would continue its investigation of the case “consistent with the facts and the law” and work to “alleviate tensions, address community concerns and promote healing.”
“We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion — and also with truth,” he said. “We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents.”
He made the comments during an appearance at the Washington Convention Center, where Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly black sorority, was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its 1913 founding by 22 women at Howard University in the District.
On Tuesday, the attorney general will be the featured speaker at the NAACP’s annual convention in Orlando, Fla., a short drive from the Sanford courthouse where Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty.
The White House said President Obama would have no comment about the Justice Department investigation. It said cases are “brought on the merits, and the merits are evaluated by the professionals at the Department of Justice.”
Trayvon, a 17-year-old high school student, was fatally shot Feb. 26, 2012, by Mr. Zimmerman, the Hispanic former neighborhood watch volunteer for a gated community in Sanford, where the teenager was temporarily staying. Mr. Zimmerman told police that Trayvon attacked him and he shot the teenager in self-defense.
At the time of the initial interview, police said the 28-year-old neighborhood watch coordinator was bleeding from the nose and from two cuts on the back of his head. Photographs back this account.
Sanford police released Mr. Zimmerman without being charged, saying they found no evidence to contradict Mr. Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.
After much media attention, a special prosecutor, Angela Corey, was named March 12, 2012, to take over the investigation. She brought second-degree murder charges against Mr. Zimmerman on April 11, 2012. On Saturday, after a monthlong trial and more than 16 hours of deliberations, a jury of six women found Mr. Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and declined the option of convicting on a lesser charge such as manslaughter.
In the hours after Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty, protests across the country mostly were peaceful, although the news media had predicted and hyped the prospect of violent protests in the case of an acquittal.
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