Holder: Justice Dept. will soon announce decision on Zimmerman civil rights charges

November 19, 2013

The Justice Department will soon announce its decision on whether to bring civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black 17-year-old whose death in Florida last year set off a nationwide debate about race, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said.

Holder said that the federal civil rights investigation, which was launched shortly after Martin was shot inside a gated community near Orlando, will be completed “relatively soon” and that the department will issue a report about its deliberations.

“We have to run through the process,” Holder said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We have to examine all the things that are appropriate. [Former assistant attorney general for civil rights] Tom Perez mandated . . . that we put together a report that we can share with the American people, so that we simply don’t make an announcement, whatever it is.”

Current and former Justice Department officials said they do not think the department will bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Civil rights charges in the Martin shooting, they said, would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to prosecute successfully.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case, said that charging Zimmerman with a federal hate crime would be difficult because it would not be enough to show that he followed Martin that night because of his race. Prosecutors would have to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman killed Martin because of his race, the officials said.

The officials said Zimmerman’s acquittal in state court could further complicate a civil rights case, as would FBI interviews with witnesses last year that suggested racial bias was not a motivating factor in the killing.

After Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July, there was a national uproar, and civil rights groups and African American leaders called on President Obama and Holder to bring a federal case against Zimmerman.

Holder called Martin’s killing a “tragic, unnecessary shooting death.”

“We will never stop working to ensure that — in every case, in every circumstance and in every community — justice must be done,” Holder said in July, speaking to a gathering of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in Washington.

Zimmerman was arrested again Monday in Apopka, Fla., about 15 miles northwest of Orlando, and charged with assault after police deputies were called to a home where he lived with his girlfriend. She told police that Zimmerman pointed a gun at her during an argument.

In a 911 call recording released by police, a woman is heard saying, “He’s inside my house breaking all my [things] because I asked him to leave.”

The woman then says to someone: “I’m doing this again? You just broke my glass table. You just broke my sunglasses, and you put your gun in my freaking face and told me to get the [expletive] out.”

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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