In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the White House tried to assure angry supporters of the Trayvon Martin family that the investigation would continue. Eric Holder yesterday told a luncheon that “I share your concern” over the “tragic, unnecessary shooting death,” while members of Congress pushed the Department of Justice to take some kind of action to address the situation. Today, though, the Washington Post hears from sources within the DoJ that federal action is all but impossible:
Current and former Justice Department officials said Monday that bringing civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old in Florida, would be extremely difficult and may not be possible.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. vowed to continue a federal investigation of the matter, but other officials said in interviews that the government may not be able to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime because it’s not clear that he killed Martin because of his race.
The weakness of the evidence compounds the political problems facing President Obama and Holder, who are under mounting pressure from many liberal and African American groups to bring a federal case against Zimmerman after a Florida jury acquitted him Saturday of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Actually, it’s more clear that race was not a motivating factor. The FBI determined that already in its report, picked up by The Smoking Gun and published over the weekend. One of the jurors in the case emphasized that last night in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN:
The six-member jury that acquitted George Zimmerman did not believe race played a role in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the first juror to speak publicly about the trial said Monday night.
The juror, identified only as Juror B37, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she and the other jurors believed the screaming voice captured on a 911 recording belonged to Zimmerman, and lent little credibility to a key witness who spoke to Trayvon on the phone before he died. …
So far, however, the FBI has found no evidence that racial bias was a motivating factor in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting. Agents investigating the case last July determined that Zimmerman had not expressed racial animus at any time before the confrontation with Trayvon in a Sanford housing complex.
That eliminates the hate-crime lever for federal intervention in the case. The jury and the DoJ’s own investigation both concluded that Zimmerman didn’t have the kind of animus required by those statutes, and a further prosecution would not only yield the same reasonable-doubt acquittal — especially after introducing the exact same weak case that the state of Florida had — but also will create even more political damage from its failure.
Generally speaking, anonymous sources from any administration that appear in the Post or the New York Times fall into two categories: whistleblowers and launchers of trial balloons. The latter get sent out to their contacts in the media to release sensitive information on the administration’s terms. That seems to be the purpose of this leak, too. After stoking expectations for forty-eight hours of some kind of meaningful action by the administration, the DoJ appears to be casting a healthy dash of cold water on those prospects.
Bloomberg’s editorial board expresses indignation over the result of the trial, but warns the DoJ to back off:
Now that a Florida jury has acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the U.S. Department of Justice has resumed its inquiry into whether Martin was the victim of a hate crime. The investigation may be necessary and even worthwhile. The answer to the question of whether Zimmerman should be retried in federal court, however, is clear: No.
The Justice Department’s civil-rights investigation, which was put on hold while Zimmerman’s criminal trial was under way, could theoretically uncover new information. And a federal case against Zimmerman might provide a brief catharsis for millions of Americans outraged that an unarmed teen was shot dead, without any criminal penalty imposed on the man who pulled the trigger.
But outrage is not a legal strategy, and catharsis is not something the justice system is especially well-equipped to provide. Pursuing a federal case would ultimately prove both unproductive and unwise.
The DoJ has already conducted an investigation into those issues and come up empty. As Zimmerman was not acting as an agent of the state, there is a good argument that the DoJ doesn’t have a role in this kind of case in the first place, especially after the state has prosecuted for the core act and lost. It’s time to take this advice and end the discussion.