ustice Dept. Won’t Charge George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin Killing
By LIZETTE ALVAREZFEB. 24, 2015
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.
The Department of Justice is also conducting two separate civil rights investigations into the shooting death of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last August. In that case, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, touching off sometimes violent demonstrations and triggering a debate about the use of police force in minority neighborhoods. The Justice Department is expected to complete those investigations soon.
The first of the two investigations focuses on the conduct of the police officer who shot Mr. Brown. The second is a broader investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
Mr. Zimmerman’s case also swirled, to a large extent, around issues of race. Prosecutors said Mr. Zimmerman forced a confrontation with Mr. Martin in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012, because Mr. Martin was an unfamiliar tall black teenager in a hoodie walking around Mr. Zimmerman’s gated community one rainy night. Mr. Martin was in Sanford with his father, visiting his father’s fiancé, who lived in the gated community.
A rash of burglaries in the area had heightened Mr. Zimmerman’s concerns and, as the neighborhood watch leader, he said, he was suspicious of Mr. Martin. He got out of his car — ignoring the advice of a police dispatcher — and followed Mr. Martin, setting off a confrontation that led to Mr. Martin’s death, prosecutors said.
Angry at Mr. Zimmerman and feeling threatened, prosecutors said, Mr. Martin pushed him to the ground, punched him and slammed his head into the pavement. Mr. Zimmerman, flat on his back, took out a gun and killed Mr. Martin. He told the police it was self-defense.
Matt Apuzzo contributed reporting from Washington.
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