The NAACP and other civil rights groups, angered by a state jury's acquittal in the shooting death of South Florida black teenager Trayvon Martin, turned up the pressure Sunday on the U.S. Justice Department to pursue federal criminal charges against the man who killed him, George Zimmerman.
The Justice Department has a host of criminal civil-rights laws at its disposal and has made such cases in the past.
Among them: the federal prosecution of a group of Los Angeles police officers after they were acquitted in state court of the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991, which sparked riots in that city. Two of the four officers were eventually convicted by a federal jury of violating King's civil rights under "color of law" -- that
is, beating him up in their capacity as cops. But that law applies only to those in law enforcement, and Zimmerman is a civilian.
In his case, it's possible the Justice Department might consider using a different type of civil-rights law: the federal hate-crime statute. As in the King case, the double-jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit such a federal prosecution in the wake of Zimmerman's state acquittal, because it's a different jurisdiction. But legal experts said it's going to be a formidable challenge for Attorney General Eric Holder to press forward with a hate-crime case against Zimmerman under U.S. civil rights laws, because Florida jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in Trayon's death.
Jurors found prosecutors failed to prove the more serious second-degree charge that Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman at a Sanford gated community, possessed "ill-will," "hatred" or "spite" in the fatal shooting of Martin. Instead, the six female jurors found Zimmerman acted in self-defense.
Consequently, experts said, it would be legally inconsistent for the Justice Department to consider filing criminal charges against Zimmerman under the federal Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which prohibits someone from "willfully causing bodily injury" to another person because of his race, color, religion or national origin.
"If the state jury had been persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman caused bodily harm to Trayvon Martin because of Martin's race, it would have almost certainly convicted Zimmerman of second-degree murder, which requires proof of ill-will or malice," said Scott Srebnick, a prominent federal criminal defense attorney in Miami. "So, to bring a federal civil-rights prosecution against Zimmerman, the attorney general would essentially be second-guessing the state jury's verdict as opposed to vindicating a different or broader federal interest."
Srebnick added: "I find it doubtful that the attorney general will pursue a prosecution on a civil rights theory simply out of displeasure with the state jury's verdict."
Brian Tannebaum, a Miami defense attorney and past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, agreed.
"People are comparing this case to Rodney King, where there was a federal prosecution after a state acquittal, but the difference there was there were witnesses, specifically the video everyone still remembers," Tannebaum said, referring to a man's sensational videotape of the police beating.
"Zimmerman was a failed prosecution from the beginning -- where the only witness [Zimmerman] had the right to remain silent [by not testifying] -- and I don't think the federal government will try again," Tannebaum said.
The day after the verdict, Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, spoke with their attorney, Benjamin Crump, about what happens next -- including a possible a wrongful-death case against Zimmerman in civil court.
"Sybrina cried and prayed last night in Miami, but she also made a decision that she is not going to let this verdict define the legacy of her son, Trayvon Martin," Crump said. "She and Tracy are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work using their foundation to make sure this never happens to another child. At the same time, they are still trying to understand the verdict and then they will be making a decision about pursuing the case in other ways legally.''
The NAACP, in a statement issued by President Benjamin Todd Jealous, said the civil rights group was "not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin."
By midday Sunday, about 250,000 people had signed a petition on the NAACP's website -- the surge of traffic left the site inaccessible at times -- urging the Justice Department to bring a criminal civil-rights case against Zimmerman. Another 125,000 people had signed a similar petition at moveon.org, an NAACP spokesman said.
The group's public pressure on the Justice Department puts Holder, the nation's first African-American attorney general, in the difficult position of making a daunting decision on a controversial case that has riveted the nation's attention and ignited renewed debate about racial profiling.