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Will Zimmerman Face a Second or Third Round of Litigation?Ralph E. Stone Salem-News.com
The FBI did conduct an investigation of the shooting, but halted its investigation, deferring to Florida’s investigation and ultimate prosecution of Zimmerman.
(SAN FRANCISCO) - The world now knows that George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, was acquitted of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. The teen was walking inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, where he and his father were visiting his father’s fiancée.
The prosecution failed to convince a six-women jury that Zimmerman had “a depraved mind without regard for human life” when he shot Martin, which was required for a second-degree murder conviction. Prosecutors also failed to show that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification, which was required for a manslaughter conviction.
The NAACP in conjunction with MoveOn have an online petition asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Reportedly, over 50,000 have signed the petition.
The FBI did conduct an investigation of the shooting, but halted its investigation, deferring to Florida’s investigation and ultimate prosecution of Zimmerman. However, on July 15, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reaffirmed there is an “open investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin.”
If the DOJ does charge Zimmerman, it will be under the federal hate crimes acts, which states in pertinent part, ”Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.”
There are a number of obstacles, however, facing the DOJ if it decides to charge Zimmerman with a hate crime. First, the DOJ must establish that Zimmerman “willfully” killed Martin. In criminal law statutes, willfully ordinarily means with a bad purpose or criminal intent. This is a much more difficult standard to establish than for a second degree murder or manslaughter conviction.
Additionally, the DOJ is usually very cautious where there is a state level trial.
Finally, and most importantly, a key element in a hate crime is establishing racial bias or hatred on the part of Zimmerman.
“‘Fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away,’” said assistant state attorney John Guy using the same words that Zimmerman told a police dispatcher as he pursued Martin on the night of February 26, 2012. By saying these provocative words, was Zimmerman racially profiling Martin, or was Zimmerman referring to the spate of unsolved burglaries in the area where the culprits “always” got away with it? Regardless of the state court acquittal, many still believe Zimmerman’s actions were racially motivated.
But consider that during the FBI’s own investigation conducted last year, agents interviewed Zimmerman’s co-workers, neighbors, and other acquaintances, including his ex-fiancée, and found no evidence of racial bias. The FBI further reported that Zimmerman comes from a mixed-race family and does volunteer work helping underprivileged African-American children. Not only does he have black relatives, he has also donated his time tutoring black children.
Finally, lead Sanford police detective Chris Serino told the FBI that race was not behind the shooting. Rather, Serino believed Zimmerman’s action was based on Martin’s attire, the total circumstances of the encounter, and the previous burglaries in the community. Serino described Zimmerman as overzealous and as having a “little hero complex,” but not a racist.
In effect, the FBI has already cleared Zimmerman of a hate crime based on racial bias or hatred which, of course, does not mean racism does not exist in the U.S.
Given that there is no or conflicting evidence that Zimmerman had any intention of depriving Martin of any cognizable federal right, I would be very surprised if the DOJ filed a hate crime charge against him.
A much more likely second round of litigation would be a civil action by the Martin family against Zimmerman. A good comparison is the O.J. Simpson case, where Simpson was acquitted in the criminal trial but successfully sued in a civil trial by the families of the deceased.
The standard of proof in a civil trial is much lower and Zimmerman could be forced to testify. I am not sure the result would be any different in a civil trial, but Zimmerman could be found liable for the death of Martin.
Salem-News.com writer Ralph E. Stone was born in Massachusetts. He is a graduate of both Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School. We are very fortunate to have this writer's talents in this troubling world; Ralph has an eye for detail that others miss. As is the case with many Salem-News.com writers, Ralph is an American Veteran who served in war. Ralph served his nation after college as a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam war. After Vietnam, he went on to have a career with the Federal Trade Commission as an Attorney specializing in Consumer and Antitrust Law. Over the years, Ralph has traveled extensively with his wife Judi, taking in data from all over the world, which today adds to his collective knowledge about extremely important subjects like the economy and taxation. You can send Ralph an email at this address firstname.lastname@example.org
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