Justice Department Announces There Will Be No Federal Charges Against George Zimmerman
Nearly three years to the day after it started, the George Zimmerman case is essentially over.
Just a few days short of the third anniversary of the confrontation in a Florida community that thrust him into the national spotlight, the Justice Department has announced that it will not be pursuing civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in conection with the shooting of Trayvon Martin:
MIAMI — The Justice Department on Tuesday closed its investigation into the shooting death three years ago of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager in a hoodie who became a symbol of racial profiling and expansive self-defense laws, without filing hate-crime charges against the gunman George Zimmerman.
The department began a civil rights investigation shortly after a national furor erupted over Mr. Martin’s death, which set off protests, demands for justice and an emotional response from President Obama. The shooting was the first in a string of racially tinged cases involving the death of young black men that have prompted a rethinking of the nation’s criminal justice system and police procedure.
Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted in a state court of second-degree murder in 2013; some jurors said they believed that Mr. Zimmerman had shot Mr. Martin, 17, in self-defense.
“Though a comprehensive investigation found that the high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met under the circumstances here, this young man’s premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
On Tuesday, officials from the Justice Department and the F.B.I. met with Mr. Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, to inform them about the decision not to bring federal charges.
Since Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal, he has had numerous run-ins with the law. Last month, he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, accused of throwing a wine bottle at his girlfriend. In 2013, shortly after his acquittal, he was arrested after a heated fight with another girlfriend, but the woman asked prosecutors not to press charges. And in 2014, the police in Lake Mary, Fla., said a driver had told officers that Mr. Zimmerman threatened him during what was described as a road rage incident.
The federal inquiry was started to pursue “an independent investigation” into the shooting after local police officials and prosecutors were slow to arrest and charge Mr. Zimmerman; they argued that Florida’s self-defense laws would make it difficult to prove a criminal case. Gov. Rick Scott then appointed a special prosecutor who eventually charged Mr. Zimmerman.
After scores of interviews about Mr. Zimmerman’s character and actions, as well as the circumstances of the shooting, the Justice Department has concluded that not enough evidence exists to charge Mr. Zimmerman, who is part Peruvian, with a hate crime, Mr. Martin’s parent said.
Mr. Zimmerman’s former lawyer, Mark O’Mara, has said that there is no evidence his client was racist, citing the fact he had black friends and saying that he had mentored two black youths.
The bar for bringing federal hate crime charges is high. Federal prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Zimmerman intended to kill Mr. Martin simply because he was black. Negligence and recklessness are not enough.
Although it’s somewhat unusual for an investigation of this type to have taken this long, the outcome is not unexpected. Back in October, there were already hints that this would be the outcome based on reports out of the Justice Department that civil rights charges would be unlikely in this case. However, it was apparent long before then that this was not an appropriate case for Federal jurisdiction. As I noted in the aftermath of the verdict int he state court murder trial, there simply was no credible evidence that Zimmermann acted out of racial animus or with the intention of depriving Martin of his rights because of his race. Instead it was clear from the beginning that this was a confrontation between two men on a dark February night that went very bad very quickly, and while one can criticize Zimmerman for his actions it seems clear to me from the evidence that has been made public, and most especially from what came out at trial, that the jury came to the right decision based on the way the case was presented to them. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if the prosecutors had tried from the beginning to go for a a lesser charge such as manslaughter or negligent homicide, but they didn’t do that and the evidence that was presented was quite simply insufficient to find Zimmerman guilty of the charges against him and, indeed, was more than sufficient to support the claim of self-defense that Zimmerman had raised in his defense. In the end, it was obvious that Zimmerman did not have any real racial motives that night, and for that reason alone it would have been wrong for the Justice Department to bring charges against him.
The Zimmerman case isn’t the only recent high profile case that the Justice Department has been considering, of course. There is still an ongoing investigation related to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri which resulted in no charges being brought against former Office Darren Wilson by a St. Louis County Grand Jury. In that case, there have been multiple reports, both before the Grand Jury announced its decision and afterwards, that the Justice Department was unlikely to bring charges against Wilson in that case. As with the Zimmerman case, the main reason for this is the fact that there isn’t sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Wilson acted out of racial animus during the incident that resulted in Michael Brown’s death last year. Additionally, the evidence that was released in the wake of the Grand Jury’s decision in November seems to make it unlikely that a Federal Prosecutor would be able to bring charges against Wilson that they could have a good faith belief had the potential of resulting in a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In such a situation, it is generally considered unethical for a prosecutor to even bring charges. In addition to investigating Wilson and the Brown shooting, though, the Justice Department is also conducting a broader investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. That is potentially a much longer process, and many legal observers seem to believe that it will result in some action by the department that will result in mandated changes in how the police in Ferguson operate. As far as Wilson goes, though, I would expect that we’ll be getting an announcement in that case similar to the one issued today regarding Zimmerman.
For all purposes, this announcement means that the Zimmerman/Martin case is over. There is no further potential of criminal charges in the case and, while Zimmerman may still face a civil trial on the part of Martin’s parents, that case will be largely symbolic since, by all accounts, Zimmerman is penniless and has no assets. In other words, whatever your opinion of George Zimmerman, it’s time to close the books on this case.
Given the rate at which he seems determined to self-destruct, prosecuting him at this point would just be overkill. He’s a problem that will solve itself – hopefully without him taking any more people with him on his downward spiral.
One county over. Guess things have changed ( at least there was a trial) but things haven’t changed enough. Oh well….
The only racism you can attribute to Zimmerman is implicit racism, the kind that decided a black guy in a hoodie walking alone at night might have constituted any sort of threat to the neighborhood. What happened afterwards, self-defense or no, was unnecessary and had tragic results, both the death of Trayvon Martin and what looks like Zimmerman’s increasingly unhinged behavior in the aftermath of the media attention.
@HarvardLaw92: I agree with you, HLS, but wow, is your moniker pompous.
It’s obvious that Zimmerman chased Trayvon Martin because he was a young black male. Debating the truth of this is like debating if Obama is a citizen or not. The jury made the right decision, but there’s no getting around the fact that white people who sound like Doug are akin to the white person going on about the young bucks with T-bones and welfare moms with fancy cars. It’s weird watching how white people who need their superiority construct their defenses. “It was a tragic encounter between two men which had nothing to do with race” is a disgrace.
I’m sure that many conservatives are somewhat conflicted over the decision to not bring charges against Zimmermann because many of them expected AG Holder to go after Zimmerman. I suppose they’ll find fault or reason to complain about Holder because he even had the Justice Department look into bringing charges.
Oh, sure. Zimmerman would have stalked and shot a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale white-skinned Scandinavian kid just as much as he would have young Trayvon Martin…
And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.
It would be weird to charge him with federal civil rights violations after his acquittal. He’ll get his justice in the afterlife, I guess.
This doesn’t pass the smell test:
“by all accounts, Zimmerman is penniless and has no assets.”
His truck and arsenal are not those of a man who “is penniless and has no assets.” Didn’t he get a bunch of money from the wingnut welfare circuit?
Zimmerman’s doing better than me, and I work for a living.
The use of the word “obvious” is usually limited to things that are, indeed, obvious, and not matters that are at the very least in heated and rancorous dispute.
I’ve always taken Mr. Law’s handle to be descriptive. i.e. ’92 law school grad from Harvard.
I would take it yours is too:
@Hurling Dervish: Would you prefer “Random Wall Street Lawyer 92?”
It’s no different than someone using UNC – 92 or Hofstra Grad – i.e. It’s just a factoid about me.
Scandinavians? Actually, he stalked Mrs. Olson until she turned around and threw a cup of scalding hot Folgers coffee in his face. That’s when he learned it’s safer to stalk a kid who is carrying a packet of Skittles.
@Modulo Myself: Most experts agreed at the start that there was not evidence for a high felony charge, but the state came charging in, taking over, and overreaching past the evidence. They probably could have got a conviction of some lighter charge like impersonating an officer, using excessive force, or disturbing the peace. Those would not carry long sentences but at least he would be behind bars for a while, and he most likely he would not have done very well there around a bunch of hardened criminals.
And it seems like Attorney General Holder needs to help out in these cases by trying to find clues, gather evidence, do some crime lab work, case the scene, talk to witnesses, and get some prints. I thought that was what the chief law enforcement officer is supposed to do: lead the way, not stand in front of cameras making speeches. I remember that F.B.I. chief Mr.Hoover actually went out on cases, armed, and made arrests himself instead of staying in a big office in Washington. Nothing shy about J. Edgar !
Manslaughter would have been the appropriate charge, and he almost certainly would have been convicted of it based on the evidence that was presented.
@HarvardLaw92: kinda like oj, his life was ruined after he didn’t kill his ex-wife & friend.
I think the civil rights charges really only make sense in the case of the local government acting badly. It’s a weird charge, and bound to be hard to prove, and with the timidity of Obama’s justice department, hard to prosecute.
Zimmerman is a latent racist — he saw a black kid, thought he didn’t belong because of his race, and then stalked him. He may be more than latent, based on his comments to the 911 operator, but sticking to the obvious rather than the probable, he’s a latent racist. And an asshole.
I think I have more sympathy for Zimmerman than I do for the Zimmerman defenders.
Six more mugshots and he can put out his very own calendar:
Yep, things have changed with Norherners and Republicans moving into the Democratic Party stronghold….
Wow, I haven’t heard a racist talk like that in 35 years. Nice to see you reveal yourself.
Doug – how can you possibly conclude that? I was with your earlier in the piece when you wrote there wasn’t anything here to support civil rights charges. I agree with that, but this statement goes further. It presumes we can peer into Zimmerman’s mind and know his motive.
Moreso, it ignores the reality of life in America. Do you acknowledge implicit bias and the impact it has one everyday life for black Americans? This also kind of touches on white privilege. The fact is, race almost certainly WAS a driving motive for Zimmerman that night. Was his intent to stalk and murder a black boy just because, like some lynching of old? I certainly don’t think so, but racial motivation doesn’t have to be so extreme.
The fact is he was immediately under suspicion because he was black. It’s the same way if you are walking down a city street at night and see a black man behind you, all things being equal, you are going to be more nervous than if it was a white man. That’s what white privilege is. Blacks are immediately under suspicion of being criminals, violent, “ghetto,” “thug,” unintelligent, welfare recipients. These stereotypes are so ingrained we don’t even realize that we are working off of them most of the time, but the fact is a black person starts in most of our minds as at least some of these stereotypes, and then we wait to see if his words/actions prove us wrong. It’s the opposite for white people. You assume I’m a normal, law-abiding citizen until I show you otherwise.
I’m not condemning George for those biases. I have them too. We all do. Even black folks (and contrary to what the anti-racists are preaching, YES, minorities can be racist – that’s just a game of semantics). And I sometimes even rationalize my biases. Blacks do, after all, commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime, according to the stats, regardless of the societal reasons informing that fact. But being aware of our biases is the first step, and you’re comment here really seems to be a typical white person’s “head-in-the-sand-let’s-just-all-be-colorblind” naivety. It was FAR from “obvious” – it was actually pretty obvious George saw a black kid, assumed he must have been a criminal due to, at the least, his implicit biases, and, well, we know what happened next.
Tillman basically is on the same page with me here. I didn’t read the comments first.
It’s not even clear the stats support that. Blacks do get arrested and convicted for violent crime disproportonate to their numbers in the general population — but is that because they actually commit more offenses, or because the police and prosecutors target them more, relative to how they treat white criminals?
Well, no doubt police target them more, but my own experiences and understanding (flawed as that may be) suggests pretty clearly they DO commit a disproportionate percentage, notwithstanding the fact that they are being more heavily policed. I am not speaking that as though it is proof, mind you.
You can certainly make a strong argument that centuries of slavery and continued economic privation, not to mention the destruction of the black family (the importance of fathers to boys cannot be understated) have something to do with that.
Don’t get me wrong, the stats do show that, numerically, of course, the larger white population commits far more crimes than blacks. A lot of white people forget that and pretend white folks don’t commit violent crimes, or maybe the only crimes they commit are white collars crimes. But it’s also true that a much larger proportion of the white population is better-off economically, and we know that middle-class and well-to-do people don’t generally commit violent crime.
You want to talk drug crimes – absolutely! – white people are doing way more of that than arrest numbers show, largely because of uneven enforcement. I don’t think the same is true for violent crimes. Class is a major driver of violent crime, and the sad fact is a much larger proportion of Black America is poor than is White America.
And, then you immediately peer into Zimmerman’s mind and conclude that he acted out of an implicit racial bias. Nice work!
Because it’s been empirically shown that that’s how the human mind works. And the situation does not happen if Martin is white. Because of the course the white kid belongs to the neighborhood and is just a kid, whereas Martin is a thug. I’d be thinking he was up to no good too – black kid skulking around my white neighborhood at night. Do you really think Zimmerman wasn’t aware of Martin’s race? Do you think you really treat everyone the same on a subconscious level?
I don’t presume to know his motive – whether he was trying to kill this kid or whether it was just a series of bad decisions with tragic consequences. But I DID and DO presume to understand that implicit bias is pretty much a foregone conclusion, as the science has shown. On what earth could you believe that wasn’t a factor?
As a white person it really bothers me how self-congratulatory and smug white folks are, patting themselves on the back for being so swell – for being such hard workers, and jeering and refusing to understand the plight of others. Everyone wants to pretend our present was created in a vacuum but it wasn’t. How could implicit bias not be prevalent? I’ve never known humans to be particularly broad-minded, and if you think a system of white supremacy and dehumanization that endured for 300 was undone overnight, ushering us into a colorblind present in a mere 60 years is laughable.
@aFloridian: No, this was not a racial thing, so let’s not try to pull that.
Sooo… Let me set the stage here:
You, walking home from the local convenience store with a bag of candy and a cold drink.
Me: Stalking you with a 9mm handgun.
Me: Free as a bird.
Answer that for yourself.
So, Zimmerman would have stalked a White kid carrying an open container of Skittles?
And F’ all you all who can’t wait to justify the stalking and killing of an unarmed man/child. In what world is that right? I couldn’t give a rat’s a$$ if you are racist or not, you are just as morally bankrupt as Zimmerman.
@Tyrell: Nah, it was a racial thing, but not a racial thing our laws were designed to combat. Our laws are good against overt racism — hate crimes, institutional defiance of anti-racist laws, etc. — but not the sort of bias you’d get consuming our culture against certain forms of conduct, dress, and skin color. (see here for some nice explanation and examples)
This is why people talk about racist code words and such. You can’t prove someone using a code word is racist in a court of law, but the stereotypes are there, in the grain of the words and how they’re used. We’re all implicit racists in that, for the most part, we are exposed to the same mass culture and stereotypes.
Zimmerman, in my view, unconsciously checked off boxes pertaining to Martin’s colored skin as well as his dress and the circumstances he found him in. Is Zimmerman racist? Not overtly. But it is deluded to pretend race wasn’t one of those boxes when Zimmerman’s motive to engage was so thin to begin with. That is, unless Gavrilo can suggest other boxes Zimmerman checked off.
I consider myself to be pretty liberal, & I grew up in an “integrated neighborhood” back when that was still a big deal and I had to be prepared to fight the local bigots when I was hanging out with my black friends. Even so, if I see a group of black teenagers coming my way, I automatically view them as more of a threat that I would a like group of white kids.
That kind of thinking is baked into our society. I’ve been getting messages about dangerous black folks for over half a century, and it’s affected me, even if I don’t believe it on an intellectual level.
It is amazing how quickly people have forgotten how bad the prosecution witnesses were during the trial. The first prosecutor who looked at the case decided that there was a low probablility of a conviction and that prosecutor was correct.
If progressive wonks and pundits were really interested in black lives and really believed that black lives matter, they would spend a lot more time writing about books such as Ghettoside http://www.npr.org/2015/01/26/381589023/ghettoside-explores-why-murders-are-invisible-in-los-angeles rahter than dragging up George Zimmerman one more time.
However, if the whole point of making George Zimmerman the focus of the national media was to politically energize black voters, then ignoring things such as black-on-black crime and the lack of concern in the black community for catching and punishing black criminals makes sense.
That’s funny because if I see a group of big, burly white dudes with thick beards and “Hell’s Angels” patches on their backs, I automatically view them as more of a threat than I would a group of white dudes wearing business suits. Hell, I view them as more of a threat than the group of black teenagers that scare the shit out of you.
When you have to make things up to prove your point, you don’t have much of a point.
Does your butt feel better now?
If you are into the homo-erotic thing, there are blogs specifically for that purpose.
@superdestroyer: A low probability of conviction for first degree murder, and I agree, there was always a very low chance of conviction on that charge due to the required elements of the crime, specifically premeditation and intent. It was stupid in the extreme for the prosecutor to have pursued that tactic.
Manslaughter requires neither. His actions well fall within the statutory definition of manslaughter under Florida law.
I do not see how the charge of manslaughter overcomes the argument of self-defense. The physical evidence support the theory that Martin was on top of Zimmerman and was beating him. In looking at the Florida Statute, there was nothing presented at the trial that would have supported manslaughter. http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=0700-0799/0782/Sections/0782.07.html
Actually, the physical evidence supports the theory that Martin hit Zimmermann once, knocking him down. Not an unreasonable reaction for a kid who was followed by a strange man while going about his lawful business.
As it turned out, Martin had good reason to fear Zimmermann.
Depends on what the prosecutor wanted to accomplish.
As a rule, courts (and indeed Florida law as well) frown on attempts to assert self-defense with regard to a situation resulting in grievous injury or homicide that you instigate. Zimmerman instigated the conflict, not Martin, so the “but for” moment lies with Zimmerman. It’s tough for him to establish self-defense with regard to the consequences of a conflict that he instigated.
“Self-defense” is an affirmative defense, i.e. the burden of proving that it is merited lies with the defendant asserting it, not the prosecutor.
Since Zimmerman did not throw the first punch and there is no evidence of “fighting words”, that what was the instigation? That he got out of his truck? That he participated in a neighborhood watch program? That he had called 911?
Zimmerman stalked an unarmed and innocent person,at night, with a weapon.The initiating event in this sad tale was that Zimmerman pursued Martin (Zimmerman initiated the chain of events), continued to pursue him despite having been told to detach by the 911 operator (Zimmerman escalated the chain of events) and chose to exit his vehicle to confront Martin despite having been told not to do so (Zimmerman further escalated the chain of events). Martin didn’t pursue him.
Zimmerman could have, at any of several points, avoided the entire mess by ending his pursuit and allowing the police to handle the matter when they arrived, but he chose not to. At every stage, Zimmerman chose to further escalate the conflict that he created to begin with.
Zimmerman’s behavior choices predicated the entire incident, not Martin’s, ergo Zimmerman is the predicate cause of the event. Self-defense in response to a situation that you instigate in not sufficient, which is why Zimmerman’s attorneys never pursued a “stand your ground” exemption. The statute explicitly bars applicability with regard to incidents initiated by the person attempting to assert the statute as a defense. Self-defense would have been a long shot, at best, and the prosecutor would have made the same argument that I just did, but to the jury.. Zimmerman, IMO, would easily have been convicted of manslaughter.
The jury was given the opportunity of convicting on manslaughter and did not. Zimmerman had a right to be out that night, had a right to be walking on that sidewalk, and even had a right to speak to Mr. Martin. However, all of the evidence presented showed that Martin threw the first punch at the “Creepy Ass Cracker.” Maybe Mr. Martin should have just kept walking home or maybe even called the police on his cell phone instead of deciding to throw a punch.
I love armchair lawyers …