In the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the Department of Justice announced that they will continue their existing review of the case to see if civil-rights charges can be brought. That will prove difficult not only because of the acquittal in the case Saturday night, but because the results of an FBI investigation undercuts any basis for prosecution:
The Justice Department has responded to appeals to probe whether George Zimmerman committed any civil rights violations in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — but previously filed FBI documents are already challenging the narrative that the shooting was racially motivated.
Sanford police detective Chris Serino told FBI agents last year that after examining the case, it appeared Zimmerman was suspicious of Martin because of his “attire, the total circumstances of the encounter and the previous burglary suspects in the community.”
According to the document, Serino considered Zimmerman as having “a little hero complex, but not as a racist.”
Serino told the FBI that there had been several burglaries in the area, and that gang members in the community “typically dressed in black and wore hoodies.”
“When Zimmerman saw Martin in a hoody, Zimmerman took it upon himself to view Martin as acting suspicious,” Serino said, while describing Zimmerman as “overzealous.” The FBI document was posted on the Smoking Gun website.
The only basis for federal charges would have to rely on a hate-crime charge. Unlike the Rodney King case, where the DoJ pressed charges after a state court acquitted defendants, Zimmerman didn’t act under color of authority. He acted as a private citizen. Whether one believes he “profiled” Martin or not is irrelevant, because “profiling” is actionable by the DoJ only when police forces do it. And in this case, the DoJ’s own investigators concluded that racism didn’t play a significant role in the incident.
Ruth Marcus calls the DoJ’s intervention a mistake:
Another way to understand the divide is through the prism of legal rules, which may serve the broader ends of justice but produce unjust results in the short run. Thus the exclusionary rule for illegally seized evidence, meaning that some criminals go free because the constable has blundered.
Likewise, the law’s requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal convictions presumes tolerance for a certain amount of unjust results. We accept the bargain, inBlackstone’s formulation, that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”
Zimmerman’s acquittal is not the end of this sad story. Because of the lower burden of proof, a civil lawsuit by Martin’s family would have a better chance of success. A federal prosecution on civil rights charges would be a mistake; the state trial failed to show adequate evidence of racial animus to sustain such a case.
In the end, society must accept that there is not always a perfect fit between a criminal justice system and justice.
The loss of the second-degree murder charge made that abundantly clear. The prosecution didn’t present enough evidence of such animus during the trial to merit the indictment, let alone the conviction. That’s one reason that Alan Dershowitz wants Angela Corey disbarred.
The DoJ is likely playing for time. They’re probably hoping that having the open probe will defuse some of the acute rage and allow for a safety valve, so that rage can give way to reason and rationality. If not and they’re serious, they’re setting themselves up for a bigger failure than Corey. That rage will shift direction quickly if that happens, and the DoJ and Obama White House won’t like the results.