In killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, federal investigation still open

A jury on Saturday acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. last year, but legal action against Zimmerman could continue. The Justice Department is investigating whether Zimmerman, who claimed he shot and killed Martin in self-defense, violated any federal laws. Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that he was disturbed by Martin’s death:

“We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion — and also with truth,” he said, according to the remarks released by his office. “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. And we will never stop working to ensure that — in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community — justice must be done.”. . .

He said the tragedy provides an opportunity for the nation “to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.” This opportunity “to better understand one another and to make better this nation we cherish” must not be allowed to pass, Holder said. . .

The Justice Department released a statement saying that its civil rights division still has an open investigation into Martin’s death, a probe it launched in March 2012. Working with the FBI, federal prosecutors are reviewing evidence to see whether the case can be prosecuted, the statement said.

It pledged that the department would investigate the “facts and circumstances” of the shooting and take “appropriate action.” The statement said federal prosecutors would “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.”

William Branigan and Sari Horwitz

It is also possible that Martin’s family could bring a civil claim against Zimmerman:

The legal standard in a civil lawsuit is lower — a preponderance of the evidence, rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Zimmerman chose not to testify in his criminal trial, but it is likely he would have to testify and be deposed in a civil lawsuit, said Daniel Petrocelli, who led the legal team that won $33.5 million in damages in a civil wrongful-death trial against O.J. Simpson after his murder acquittal.

“In that sense, civil trials are a more pure search for the truth,” Petrocelli, a partner in the O’Melveny & Myers law firm, said in an interview Sunday.

Petrocelli said that his deposition of Simpson lasted 14 days and that he received suggestions from around the world — all of which he ignored — about what questions to ask.

Manuel Roig-Franzia

Around the country, many were frustrated by the jury’s verdict in the case:

From church pews to street corners to the sprawling social-media universe, Americans expressed outrage, disgust and, in some cases, relief at the verdict. Rallies and vigils were held in Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles as well as in Sanford, Fla., where the killing and the trial took place. Others were scheduled in Boston, Detroit and Baltimore.

“I grew up in Georgia, and what happened to Trayvon would be the norm for any black man in Georgia,” said James Ealey, 73, recalling an earlier, more segregated nation. “That was the way it was. We are going backwards. We are not in a post-racial America just because of Barack Obama,” he said after Sunday services at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.

The White House issued a statement in which Obama characterized Martin’s death as “a tragedy . . . not just for his family . . . but for America.” The president acknowledged that “passions may be running ever higher” in the wake of the verdict but urged citizens to remember that a jury had spoken.

“I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son,” Obama said. “And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities . . . if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. . . . That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”

The verdict did little to close the stark divisions the case opened up among Americans along the jagged fissures of race and personal safety — starting when Martin was shot about 18 months ago.

A Zimmerman attorney argued throughout the case that race had little bearing on the initial confrontation or the outcome. But the case has played out against a racially charged backdrop since Zimmerman followed the unarmed Martin as he walked through his central Florida neighborhood and later said a confrontation led him to shoot Martin in self-defense.

As one side sees it, a racially biased criminal justice system was slow to charge Zimmerman and quick to believe a white man’s version of events. The other side sees in Zimmerman a law-abiding citizen who tried to protect his neighborhood and properly claimed his right to carry a weapon in self-defense.

Protesters across the country decried what they called the injustice of Zimmerman’s acquittal. They insisted that something must change in a court system and body of law that would allow an armed and self-appointed neighborhood watchman to pursue a black teenager, based on the suspicion that he was up to no good, and kill him.

Carol Leonnig and Jenna Johnson

Opinion writer Ruth Marcus argues that both Zimmerman’s supporters and those who wanted him convicted have been guilty of exaggeration:

Both sides, naturally, see the Zimmerman verdict through the lens of their own preconceptions. “This will confirm for many that the only problem with the New South is it occupies the same time and space as the Old South,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, invoking the memory of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed in 1955 after supposedly flirting with a white woman and whose murderers were acquitted. “Old South justice,” thundered Jesse Jackson.

This comparison is unfair. No doubt race played a role in Martin’s death. Zimmerman likely would not have called the police about a white teenager — even a white teenager wearing a hoodie — walking back from a 7-Eleven.

But there is no evidence that race played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal. If anything, the racial undertones worked against Zimmerman, increasing public pressure on prosecutors to bring the most serious — and, in hindsight, the most difficult to support — charges against him.

Contrast the Zimmerman trial with that of Till’s murderers. The courtroom was segregated. No hotel would rent rooms to black observers. The local sheriff welcomed black spectators to the courtroom with what was described as a cheerful use of the vilest racial epithet. The New South is not perfect, but it is not the Old.

The overreaction from the left is mirrored by the overreaction from the right, and without the excuse of being swept away by emotion over a child’s unnecessary death. Conservative Roger L. Simon lamented on PJ Media that Zimmerman “will never live a normal life” and described the prosecution as “quite literally, the first American Stalinist ‘show trial.’ ”

That is, quite literally, deranged. Of course no decent person responsible for killing an unarmed teenager could “live a normal life.” And the entire point of “show trials” was that the outcome, unlike Zimmerman’s acquittal, was foreordained.

Ruth Marcus

Robert Samuels describes his own reaction to the verdict:

At once, so many parts of my identity — a New Yorker, a 28-year-old, a journalist, an all-around good guy — felt stripped away. All I was left with was this reductive feeling that made me feel sadness no different from any other black man in America. . .

I found myself with a line from “Strange Fruit,” the Abel Meeropol poem about black men being lynched. The description of the trees from which they hung was immortalized when Billie Holiday sang the line: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

I was haunted by how profound the metaphor was. There was the gruesomeness of overt racism that anyone could see. And beneath, there’s this systemic problem that prevents fully flowered equality. This is the dualism that compels black moms and dads to teach their boys that American justice, for them, comes with an asterisk.

It is the lesson that so many black men try not to believe, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

If I were to facilitate the national conversation of race regarding this case, I realized my first question would be: “Do we believe the justice system treats everyone equally?”

And the follow-ups: “When decisions are handed out that some feel unfairly target one person, how would you characterize that inequality? Is it blood on the leaves or blood at the root?”

The first question to myself was much more basic: Why is this case consuming me?

Robert Samuels

See how people responded to the verdict in the gallery below.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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