The Justice Department announced Tuesday that George Zimmerman will not face federal criminal civil rights charges for shooting and killing teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Zimmerman fatally shot Martin while the unarmed African American 17-year-old was walking in Sanford, Fla. The shooting became a national flashpoint, sparking a discussion of race relations that continues to reverberate since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and other incidents across the country.
“The death of Trayvon Martin was a devastating tragedy,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “It shook an entire community, drew the attention of millions across the nation, and sparked a painful but necessary dialogue throughout the country.”
As a result of the announcement Tuesday, the federal investigation into the shooting has been closed.
Holder said that the “comprehensive examination” determined that there was not enough evidence for a federal hate crime prosecution. But he added that Martin’s “premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface.”
Martin’s family said in a statement that they were “disappointed” with the findings, but thanked the people who offered prayer and other support over the years.
“We remain poised to do everything in our power to help eradicate senseless violence in our communities, because we don’t want any other parent to experience the unexplainable loss we have endured,” Martin’s family said. “We will never, ever forget what happened to our son, Trayvon, and will honor his memory by working tirelessly to make the world a better place.”
His family also thanked the Justice Department for the “extensive and thorough investigation into the killing of our son.” A Martin family attorney confirmed that representatives of the family met with Justice Department officials on Tuesday to be told about the decision. They were also joined by officials from the FBI.
The decision was not unexpected, as three law enforcement officials told The Washington Post last fall that Zimmerman was not expected to face charges. It was announced two days before the third anniversary of Martin’s death and almost three weeks after what would have been Martin’s 20th birthday.
A team of civil rights prosecutors and FBI agents conducted “a comprehensive, independent investigation” into Martin’s death, according to the Justice Department. This was separate from the local investigation into the shooting, which resulted in Zimmerman being charged with second-degree murder.
Zimmerman, a former volunteer neighborhood watchman who identifies as Hispanic, told police he was fighting for his life and fired at Martin in self-defense. The case also prompted outrage over “stand your ground laws,” statutes that have been enacted in more than 30 states. Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury in July 2013, a decision that prompted demonstrations in cities across the United States.
These demonstrations and others prompted by the shooting were, in many ways, a direct precursor to the “Black Lives Matter” protests that erupted after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer last summer, as well as the deaths of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Eric Garner in Staten Island.
“Although disappointed by the announcement, we are not surprised by the DOJ’s decision to clear George Zimmerman of charges,” said Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, an activist group created after the Martin shooting. “This decision is further proof that this system was not set up to protect Black or Brown communities.”
After the Martin shooting. hundreds of thousands of demonstraters called for Zimmerman to be arrested and charged in the shooting. And that burst of activism birthed several prominent activist groups – including Million Hoodies and Dream Defenders — who played crucial roles in organizing protests and demonstrations last year following the shooting of Brown last year.
“The Million Hoodies team express our sympathies to Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin for hearing this announcement just days before the anniversary of Trayvon’s murder,” Barry said.
Once Zimmerman’s trial concluded in 2013, the federal investigation resumed, with authorities interviewing dozens of witnesses, looking at electronic recordings and reviewing crime scene evidence and ballistics reports.
“The federal investigation sought to determine whether the evidence of the events that led to Martin’s death were sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman’s actions violated the federal criminal civil rights statutes,” the Justice Department said in a statement Tuesday.
They specifically looked to see if Zimmerman violated a section of the U.S. Code that makes criminal any use of force or threat based on that person’s race. In the end, “insufficient evidence” was found, the department said.
“Although the department has determined that this matter cannot be prosecuted federally, it is important to remember that this incident resulted in the tragic loss of a teenager’s life,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Our decision not to pursue federal charges does not condone the shooting that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and is based solely on the high legal standard applicable to these cases.”
Zimmerman was back in court last month after being charged with domestic aggravated assault. His family members have spoken of a desire to create a reality show based around him, according to a GQ story published last year. That story described a family feeling under siege, moving from hotel to hotel at the height of the public attention and with bags packed ready to flee at any moment.
Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.
[This post has been updated. First published: 1:57 p.m.]