WASHINGTON - Calls for the Justice Department to look into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin reverberated as soon as George Zimmerman was acquitted of state charges in a Florida courtroom, but it may be even tougher to mount a federal case against Zimmerman.
The department says it's reviewing evidence to determine whether criminal civil rights charges are warranted, but legal experts see major barriers to a federal prosecution - including the burden of proving that Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch leader, was motivated by racial animosity - and say Justice officials would likely be saddled with some of the same challenges that complicated the unsuccessful state case.
"The Justice Department would face significant challenges in bringing a federal civil rights case against Mr. Zimmerman," said Alan Vinegrad, the former U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York. "There are several factual and legal hurdles that federal prosecutors would have to overcome: They'd have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr. Zimmerman attacked Mr. Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street."
The department opened an investigation into Martin's death last year but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed. It said in a statement Sunday that the criminal section of its civil rights division, the FBI and federal prosecutors in Florida are continuing to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, plus evidence and testimony from the state trial. The statement came as the NAACP and others called on the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman for the shooting death of the unarmed black 17-year-old.
Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday night in a February 2012 shooting that tapped into a national debate about racial profiling, equal justice and self-defense. Civil rights leaders, Martin's parents and many others said Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin when he followed the teenager through a gated townhouse community and shot him, but Zimmerman said he was physically assaulted by Martin and shot the teenager in self-defense.
Though the Justice Department does have an established history of using federal civil rights laws to try to convict defendants who have been previously acquitted in related state cases, experience shows it's almost never easy getting guilty verdicts in such high-profile prosecutions. In this case, federal prosecutors pursuing a civil rights case would need to establish, among other things, that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animosity, even though race was barely mentioned at the state trial.
Lauren Resnick, a former federal prosecutor in New York who secured a conviction in the killing of an Orthodox Jew during the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, said the Justice Department could conceivably proceed under a theory that Zimmerman interfered with Martin's right to walk down a public street based on his race. But even that is difficult since the conflict occurred in a gated community, which may not fit the legal definition of a public facility. Prosecutors would also probably need to prove that trailing Martin on the street constituted interference, she said.
"One could argue it did, if it freaked him out and he couldn't comfortably walk down the street - there's an argument here," said Resnick, who now specializes in white-collar defense and commercial litigation.
But she said federal prosecutors were likely to encounter the same hurdles as state prosecutors in establishing that Zimmerman was driven by racial animus and was the initial aggressor, as opposed to someone who acted in self-defense.
"When you have a fact pattern where one person's alive, and one person's not, and the person alive is the efendant, it's hard to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt," she said.
Samuel Bagenstos, a former No. 2 official in the Justice Department's civil rights division, said: "This is an administration that hasn't shied away from bringing hate crimes cases that are solid prosecutions based on the facts and the law, but from what I've seen this would be a very difficult case to prosecute federally because the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman acted because of Trayvon Martin's race. If you're trying to prove racial motivation, you are usually looking for multiple statements related to why he is engaging in this act of violence. I think it's a difficult case to prove."
Another federal case, the Rodney King prosecution, illustrates just how difficult it can be for the federal government to come in behind a state prosecution that ended in acquittal, even when there's videotaped evidence of the crime.
King was beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers after a high-speed car chase in 1991, but the four police officers charged in the incident were acquitted on state charges of assault with a deadly weapon and three of the four were acquitted on a charge of use of excessive force. The jury deadlocked on the excessive force charge against the fourth officer.
Federal prosecutors obtained an indictment on charges of violating King's civil rights. Two of the officers were found guilty and were imprisoned. The other two officers were acquitted.
In a 1970 prosecution, the Justice Department charged three white Detroit police officers and one black private security guard with allegedly conspiring to deprive eight black youths and two white girls of their civil rights during the 1967 riots in Detroit.
The officers had gone to the Algiers Motel in a reported search for snipers. Three black teenagers were slain at the motel. One of the police officers had been acquitted earlier of a state charge of first-degree murder in the case; another officer had been found innocent in a separate state trial on a charge of felonious assault.
The federal case took place in Flint, Mich., an hour's drive north of Detroit, after the defense complained that the defendants could not get a fair trial in the city where the slayings occurred. A jury acquitted all four defendants.
In prosecuting the law enforcement officers, the Justice Department invoked an 1871 civil rights law. Prosecutors alleged that the officers had lined up the people staying at the motel and slugged them with clubs and rifle butts. There was testimony that several of the guests were taken into separate rooms where shotguns were fired into the ceiling in an effort to get those in a nearby hallway to disclose the identity of the alleged snipers and the location of firearms.
In a defense that turned out to be successful, defense attorneys emphasized that the charge against their clients was conspiracy, not assault, coercion, intimidation or murder. Lawyers for the two officers previously charged in the state cases also argued that their clients were being charged with serious criminality even though they had already been acquitted.