George Zimmerman may have been acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, but he may have to defend himself once more — this time against the federal government.
In the wake of Saturday night’s verdict, civil rights leaders and others are calling on the Obama administration’s Justice Department to wade into the case and bring new charges against Mr. Zimmerman, the Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer who was accused of murdering the 17-year-old in February 2012 in Sanford, Fla.
He is now a free man after a six-woman jury found him not guilty, putting an end to one of the most racially charged trials in recent U.S. history. There remain, however, those who think justice was not served and want the federal government to intervene.
“They will make a choice about whether they will pursue criminal civil rights charges. … There is reason to be concerned that race was a factor in why [Mr. Zimmerman] targeted young Trayvon,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday. “It’s important, just as we all put our faith in this justice system in Florida and in the jury, that we let the justice system run its course. There will be a federal civil rights phase. We are putting our faith in that system.”
The NAACP also has begun to circulate a petition calling on the federal government to act.
A federal review of the case already is underway, the Justice Department reiterated Sunday. Officials first announced an investigation into Trayvon’s death last year.
PHOTOS: Photos from the George Zimmerman verdict
“Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes without our jurisdiction, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate,” the agency said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, an MSNBC talk-show host and a former Democratic presidential primary hopeful, said Sunday that he, along with the Martin family, recently met with a U.S. attorney to discuss the case and push for action.
Mr. Sharpton, who led protests in Sanford in the weeks after Trayvon was killed, referred to federal civil rights charges as “plan B.”
“We now have a position on the books on the state of Florida where an unarmed teenager who committed no crime can be killed and the killer can say self-defense. That is dangerous. That is an atrocity. And that needs to be addressed,” Mr. Sharpton said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Lawmakers largely were mum about the issue Sunday. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat and a former prosecutor, wouldn’t comment on whether civil rights charges are appropriate.
“I know you wait until you see all the evidence” before making a decision, she said on ABC’s “This Week.”
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It’s unclear just what evidence the Justice Department will be gathering as the investigation unfolds.
In order to bring successful civil rights charges, the federal government would have to prove that Mr. Zimmerman’s actions — following Trayvon on the night of his death and confronting him against the advice of the police dispatcher, eventually leading to the shooting — were motivated by racism.
In plain terms, the case would hinge on whether federal prosecutors could prove that Trayvon would still be alive today were it not for Mr. Zimmerman’s prejudices.
Mr. Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., said Sunday that the federal government already has conducted an exhaustive check of the Zimmerman family and found no evidence of hostility toward any ethnic group.
“We welcomed, actually, that investigation through the FBI when they originally started investigating George,” he said on CNN. “They’ve investigated, I think, about three dozen of his closest friends and acquaintances. And there is not any inkling of racism. It doesn’t do anybody good right now” to talk of new charges.
He added that groups such as the NAACP need to “cool their jets” and that “agitation doesn’t help us” in the aftermath of the trial.
It’s unclear whether the Martin family will publicly push for civil rights charges. Speaking on ABC on Sunday, the family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said they will “continue to fight for the legacy of their son” and also will consider a civil lawsuit against Mr. Zimmerman.
He did not address the family’s position on possible federal charges.
Such federal civil rights cases are somewhat rare but not unprecedented. While some legal analysts have said new charges essentially would amount to double jeopardy for Mr. Zimmerman, the federal government in the past has stepped in when a jury cleared defendants in cases involving perceived racism.
The precedents began with federal civil-rights cases being brought against segregation-era Southerners for killing blacks, a crime for which local juries were reluctant to convict. Several Los Angeles police officers were punished under federal law after being acquitted in 1992 of state crimes in the Rodney King beating, a verdict that prompted riots that killed more than 50 people.
In 2009, the Justice Department also brought hate-crime charges against two young Pennsylvania men involved in the beating death of an illegal immigrant. The two men, Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky of Shenandoah, Pa., were acquitted of murder charges in a county court earlier that year.
But that verdict led to an outcry from civil rights leaders and the Hispanic community, who argued that the victim, Luis Ramirez, was targeted solely because of his ethnicity. In 2011, Piekarsky and Donchak were convicted in a federal court of hate crimes and depriving the victim of his civil rights. They were sentenced to nine years in federal prison.