Criminal Justice

Could George Zimmerman face federal prosecution? Justice Department is examining the case


George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin does not necessarily mean his criminal justice woes are over.

The U.S. Justice Department announced on Sunday that its civil rights division has restarted an investigation of the incident, the New York Times reports. The probe had been delayed during Zimmerman’s trial on state charges of second-degree murder. The Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) and the Washington Post also have stories.

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had claimed he was acting in self-defense when he shot the unarmed African American teen. Federal civil rights leaders had urged the Justice Department to review the case after a Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman on Saturday evening.

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous told the Times why he was supporting a review of the case. “There is a pattern of George Zimmerman making dozens of calls to 911 over several years, frequently about young men of color,” he said. An online NAACP petition calling for federal prosecution attracted so many supporters that the website crashed over the weekend, ABC News reports.

The Justice Department could face difficult hurdles. Federal prosecutors would likely have to show that Zimmerman was motivated by racial hatred, experts told the Wall Street Journal. Unconscious racism by Zimmerman would not be enough, according to University of Florida law professor Kenneth Nunn.

Attorney General Eric Holder made a similar observation in an April 2012 news conference, the Times says. “We have to prove the highest standard in the law,” Holder said. “Something that was reckless, that was negligent, does not meet that standard. We have to show that there was specific intent to do the crime with the requisite state of mind.”

President Barack Obama released a statement on Sunday calling for “calm reflection” after the verdict, CNN reports. He said that the “death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.

“And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”

Updated at 8:15 a.m. to include statement by President Obama.

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