Opinion

The Great Debate

Can federal charges be brought against Zimmerman?

By William Yeomans
July 23, 2013

Now that a Florida jury has found George Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter, people across the nation are demanding federal prosecution. But this public debate has been clouded by misinformation about the possibility and scope of federal charges.

President Obama’s powerful comments on Friday helped put this matter in perspective. The state prosecution deserves a strong measure of deference. The federal government must, however, conduct a thorough investigation and undertake the rigorous analysis necessary to ensure that the federal interest in punishing civil rights violations is vindicated to the greatest extent possible.

The public outcry for federal involvement reveals the legitimate passions stirred by the killing of Trayvon Martin and drives home the importance of getting this right. The decision whether to prosecute, however, must be based on the evidence and the law as analyzed by professional civil rights prosecutors in the Justice Department.

Here are the essentials that the public needs to understand.

1. Federal charges are not barred by double jeopardy. While a state or the federal government cannot prosecute the same individual twice for the same crime, the state of Florida and the United States are separate sovereigns. Each has independent authority to prosecute individuals for violating their respective laws. The Supreme Court has ruled that a prosecution by the state does not pose a constitutional prohibition against prosecution by the federal government.

2. Though a federal prosecution is not barred by the Constitution, the federal government will pursue a successive prosecution based on the same conduct only when the state prosecution has left unvindicated a substantial federal interest and the government believes the evidence will be sufficient to obtain conviction of a federal crime by an unbiased jury. These requirements, sometimes referred to as the Petite policy, appear in the manual that guides United States attorneys.

The killing of this unarmed African-American teenager implicates the substantial federal interest in punishing racially motivated violence. For the limited purpose of identifying the interest, prosecutors will assume they can establish racial motivation. The more difficult elements to satisfy are whether the federal interest has been left unvindicated and whether the evidence is likely to lead to conviction.

In evaluating whether the interest has been left unvindicated, it is not enough that Zimmerman was acquitted. Rather, federal attorneys must examine factors such as whether the jury disregarded the evidence or law, significant evidence was unavailable, state law required proof of a fact that is not required by federal law, or there was some other element of the prosecution that left vindication of the federal interest incomplete.

3. Federal civil rights laws generally serve as a backstop for state criminal law enforcement. Federal civil rights laws date back to Reconstruction. They are usually based on the notion that states have primary responsibility for punishing violent acts, but there are federal interests of such importance that Washington must have independent authority to prosecute. The need for federal criminal civil rights laws lies in part in the failure of recalcitrant state and local officials — particularly in the South — to enforce the law and of Southern juries to return convictions. If the state is pursuing charges against a defendant that, if proven, would likely vindicate the federal interest, the federal government will generally step back to allow the state process to play out. Once that is complete, the federal government can then evaluate the adequacy of the state process and decide whether to pursue federal charges. It may decide further investigation is necessary or it may conclude all the evidence has been obtained.

4. While successive federal civil rights prosecutions are rare, they do happen. Perhaps the best known example was the prosecution of the Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King in 1991. After officers were acquitted of state charges, the federal government indicted four officers and obtained convictions of two. Similarly, the federal government prosecuted and obtained convictions of two men in the anti-Semitic killing of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights, New York in 1991 after they had been acquitted in state court.

5. Federal criminal law is limited, but there are several criminal civil rights statutes that serve as backstops to state law. Two such laws — 18 U.S.C. 241 and 242 — punish the deprivation of rights by state actors. These are the statutes used most often — as in the King case — to punish police officers who use excessive force. They appear unlikely to apply to Zimmerman, who was not cloaked in state authority, but was acting as a vigilante.

Two other laws — 18 U.S.C. 245 and 249 — prohibit racially motivated violence. Section 245 was enacted in 1968, as the first federal hate crime statute, along with the Fair Housing Act, which contains prohibitions against racially motivated violence associated with housing. Section 245 requires that the government show that the defendant used force because of race and because the victim was engaged in one of the six federally protected interests enumerated in the statute.

In this case, the government would likely have to show that Zimmerman attacked Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility. The government would have to establish that the area where Martin was attacked was a public street or sidewalk, which could prove problematic since the attack occurred in a private, gated community.

In 2009, however, Congress enacted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which made it a crime to cause bodily injury because of race — regardless of  whether the victim was exercising a federally protected right. This statute — 18 U.S.C. 249 — provides the most likely basis for a federal prosecution.

6. The major challenge of a federal prosecution will be to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was motivated by race when he shot Martin. Race plainly played a central role in Martin’s death. Few would contend seriously that if Martin had been white Zimmerman would have profiled him in the same way and would have initiated the contact that led to his death. The government’s challenge, however, would be to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that race motivated Zimmerman’s infliction of bodily harm. Zimmerman, doubtless, will argue that he was never motivated by race and certainly when he pulled the trigger he was defending himself and trying to save his life.

Most important, however, the state charges did not require it to prove racial motivation. The FBI has the opportunity and the obligation to investigate further into Zimmerman’s motivation.

In the end, whether or not criminal law provides a response to this unspeakable tragedy, the death of Trayvon Martin should spur each of us to heed Obama’s call to examine our individual attitudes about race, crime and culture. We should combine that reexamination with the extraordinary energy produced by the massive peaceful demonstrations following the verdict to examine harmful stereotypes and ill-conceived laws as we continue our long, painfully slow march toward the promise of a just nation.

 

PHTOTO (Top): Men hold a sign during a demonstration supporting Trayvon Martin in Los Angeles, California, July 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

PHOTO (Insert A): President Barack Obama talks about the Trayvon Martin case in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

 

 

Comments
21 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

You make some pretty BIG assumptions. Not the least of which is accusing Mr. Zimmerman of a crime he has been found not guilty of. Either you believe in the system or you do not. If not then your comments on the Justice Department are not valid because you are attempting to use a system you do not believe in or your comments are just biased.
FYI: The FBI investigated this before the trial and reported they could find no evidence of race impartiality in this case.
FYI: GZ did not inject race into description of TM until the police person asked him what his race was.
FYI: There was a 4 minute gap between the time GZ and TM first spoke and when the altercation took place. It is unreasonable to think that TM could not have gone approx. 70 yards or 210 feet and be safe and secure within his own home. He chose not to do that. His choice.
FYI: There is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that GZ was acting as a vigilantly. There are witnesses that confirm TM on top of GZ during the altercation. For you to suggest otherwise makes it appear as though you are trying to smear GZ.

Personally it doesn’t look as though you are very well informed of the facts in this case. I have no affiliation to or with anybody in this entire affair but I do have belief in a system that I was willing to go to war to protect and I take offense to people who do not trust that system. Is it perfect? Of course not but what you suggest is that we hold polls to see whether a person is guilty or not.

That may sound like a good idea on the surface but are you willing to turn the jury system into a reality show that ignores true facts and instead relies on host suggestion?

Perhaps President Obama should elaborate, more than a brief mention, that the black community is in fact a dangerous place and that this leads to distrust. He should have made more of a point about parents taking responsibility for educating their children to stay in school. Many, many black people have made it to highly elevated positions through hard work. Further many, many white people, by far the majority of white people do not harbor these prejudices. We do need a conversation about race but a conversation implies there are more than one point of view. If not then it is a diatribe about whats wrong with everybody else.

To sum up. I am a disabled veteran who anyone can tell by seeing me on the street. I have been mugged 3 times outside of a VA building. Not once by anybody other than a black person. So am I suspicious and distrustful. The short answer is yes. But the other side of the coin is not being heard in this case.

Posted by RetCombatVet | Report as abusive
 

Dude, why are still trying to milk this topic?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

really? ” Few would contend seriously that if Martin had been white Zimmerman would have profiled him in the same way and would have initiated the contact that led to his death.”

and the basis of that statement is what? Zimmerman reported white boys and middle aged white guys to the police while doing his rounds in the past.

I guess if you have a report of a young black male in a hoodie/jacket that stole from you neighbors , you think that is racial profiling? then reporters must be guilty of profiling every single day!

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive
 

This article is so full of lies and distortions. Here are a few:

“Race plainly played a central role in Martin’s death.” No it didn’t. Repeating a lie doesn’t make it true.

“people across the nation are demanding federal prosecution.” A loud minority wants to continue the vendetta against Zimmerman.

“The killing of this unarmed African-American teenager” He was armed with his fists. And he was killed in self-defense.

“punishing racially motivated violence” The only person engaging in racially motivated violence was Trayvon Martin.

“it is not enough that Zimmerman was acquitted.” Of course not. Why should a jury stand between the mob and its lust for vengeance?

“whether the jury disregarded the evidence” i.e. the jury would not be bullied.

“federal government can then evaluate the adequacy of the state process and decide whether to pursue federal charges.” i.e. Federalism is now an official joke.

“Two other laws — 18 U.S.C. 245 and 249 — prohibit racially motivated violence.” I guess Trayvon didn’t hear about them.

“which made it a crime to cause bodily injury because of race” I guess Trayvon didn’t hear about this one either.

“the death of Trayvon Martin should spur each of us to heed Obama’s call” Fall in line, slaves; Thoughtcrime is death.

Posted by mstamper | Report as abusive
 

I believe that Federal Prosecution will take place because there has to be civil rights violated as a citizen of the United States to have Zimmerman be able to carry a loaded gun and use it against Martin who was underage and not permitted by law to get a CWP. Florida requires a person to be over the age of 21 to carry a loaded gun. That is the reason Stand your ground laws and use of deadly force with a gun MUST be changed to give special requirements when the use of that weapon especially in such ridiculous actions as Zimmerman is used against a person that is legally not permitted to be equally protected. Where is the equality on age leaving the race out of it all together?

Posted by centralflorida1 | Report as abusive
 

Where is the world do you get race motivation out of this?
Trayvon was perceived as a punk kid, shady and looking for something to steal. That is the profile Zimmerman went after.

Any other state and Zimmerman would be in jail for manslaughter. Again nothing race related. Simply pulling a gun to shoot when you are loosing a fistfight deserves minimum manslaughter charges.

In Florida – you can use most any probable excuse to kill someone in a confrontation using the “Stand your ground” law. Race has nothing to do with it. Just one really really bad law that is insane.

For a president to make this a race issue is….. well racist!

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive
 

For a “Supreme” Court that thinks blanket warrantless searches of the private communications of the entire American People is Constitutional, it is a small step to repudiate double jeopardy.

The Constitution is a joke. They do what they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. That is all there is in the real Constitution. The rest is a cruel joke our current rulers wear as a fig leaf.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

So once again a so-called columnist tops his pseudo-serious words substituting a picture of twelve year old Trayvon instead of a picture of the six foot athletic Trayvon with “in yo’ face” gold teeth, tattoos and an “attitude” Zimmerman unexpectedly had to defend himself from. Use an honest picture, please.

“The killing of this unarmed African-American teenager implicates the substantial federal interest in punishing racially motivated violence.” Dude, your choice of words imply a neon sign above Trayvon’s head such that Zimmerman somehow KNEW the suspect he was checking out had no knife or gun. You assume “facts not in evidence”.

Trayvon’s cell phone pictures, etc. strongly suggest Trayvon DID have access to a gun. He just didn’t happen to be “packing” this particular evening. His father residing in the community was not home, nor was he expecting Trayvon. Did he have a key to his father’s house on him when he died?

If not, WHAT WAS HE DOING SULKING AROUND THAT NEIGHBORHOOD IN A HOODIE IN THE RAIN? Looking for little old ladies to help cross the street? No wonder Zimmerman was suspicious of him and his motives.

Trayvon alone made the unilateral decision to initiate an unprovoked physical assault on Zimmerman. This young thug likely didn’t know Zimnerman was armed when he surprised him and attacked using his fists as weapons.

What was Zimmerman’s duty…to meekly die? Had he anticipated an attack, he would have had his gun out and ready. As it was, it would appear he almost forgot he had it. He could easily have been the one dead. Anyone think the Hispanic community would then have “marched for justice”?

“For the limited purpose of identifying the interest, prosecutors will assume they can establish racial motivation.” And as an American taxpayer, I don’t appreciate my tax dollars being used to persecute a legitimate Neighborhood Watch volunteer doing his dead level best to protect his community.

It is simply wrong to use the unlimited resources of the federal government to force an innocent man into financial ruin to please stupid people. If we didn’t have a black president and a black U.S. Attorney General pandering to an ignorant, unruly mob there would be NO consideration of trying Zimmerman AGAIN.

Americans are presumed innocent until proven guilty. You don’t cherry pick circumstances and then speculate from those that SOMETHING wrong must have been done. It should be clear to one and all that the facts of this case provided NO justification for trying Zimmerman the FIRST time.

“If the state is pursuing charges against a defendant that, if proven, would likely vindicate the federal interest, the federal government will generally step back to allow the state process to play out.” Well in Zimmerman’s case, the “federal black interest” decided he should be arrested when he had not been, that charges should be filed when they had not been.

Then state officials in thrall or intimidated by the feds made a charge they couldn’t prove. They then add another charge for the jury to consider when it was obvious they were not going to win. The mythical figure of blind Justice in this case was also bound and gagged! Zimmerman was “railroaded” the whole way. Where is the outrage over THIS?

“In 2009, however, Congress enacted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which made it a crime to cause bodily injury because of race — regardless of whether the victim was exercising a federally protected right.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Trayvon had a “federally protected right” to attack Zimmerman.

On the other hand, considering his documented injuries, it would seem that the feds SHOULD file posthumous charges against Trayvon under this statute for his racially motivated attack on one he termed a “creepy cracker”.

There’s not much logic in allowing citizens to carry a firearm if their right to defend their life is subject to “Monday morning quarterback” legal interpretation by people who weren’t there or in any danger. To any that would argue otherwise, please consider the usual digit proudly extended to convey my utter contempt and disrespect.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

760.51 Violations of constitutional rights, civil action by the Attorney General; civil penalty.—
(1) Whenever any person, whether or not acting under color of law, interferes by … intimidation, …, or attempts to interfere by … intimidation …. with the exercise or enjoyment by any other person of rights secured by the State Constitution or laws of this state, the Attorney General may bring a civil or administrative action for damages, and for injunctive or other appropriate relief for violations of the rights secured. Any damages recovered under this section shall accrue to the injured person. The civil action shall be brought in the name of the state and may be brought on behalf of the injured person. ….

SECTION 2. Basic rights.—All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty, to pursue happiness,…… No person shall be deprived of any right because of race, religion, national origin, or physical disability.

Posted by GuestOoo | Report as abusive
 

The Federal government should step into the crime-ridden murderous city of Chicago before stepping into this unfortunate but political situation.

Posted by my2sons | Report as abusive
 

Trayvon’s “creepy cracker” comment indicates he certainly was racist himself. Is anyone discussing that?

Posted by SunAndRain | Report as abusive
 

The Stand Your Ground law should be put on trial instead.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive
 

It seems that Zimmerman’s recorded statement, “‘They’ always get away with it.” cannot be proven to be racist. Then, is there anyone who doesn’t recognize it as clearly racist?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

If I were being stalked by Zimmerman in my own neighborhood, I’d consider him a “creepy cracker” too. I’m white.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

It’s not the race but more of paranoia that drove him to follow/confront Trayvon despite the advise he recieived to not to do so.

Here is the issue – if you have a gun and paranoid about someone/something to the point of provoking an easy target and then killing in defense – then you become responsible for your actions.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive
 

Yet another tiresome example of biased journalism. This piece is not clearly intended as material based on the writer’s personal opinion, but to inform the public of facts. As such, it needs to be unbiased.

“Race plainly played a central role in Martin’s death. Few would contend seriously that if Martin had been white Zimmerman would have profiled him in the same way and would have initiated the contact that led to his death. The government’s challenge, however, would be to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that race motivated Zimmerman’s infliction of bodily harm….”

No one has established anything in regards to racial profiling. Nothing. It was certainly questioned because some people claimed he uttered racial slur, but whether he did so or not, has not at all been determined. When you repeat a lie over and over, eventually it becomes the ‘truth’. But that’s propaganda, and certainly not an angle that should be entertained by a serious, unbiased journalist. Show us the evidence and the ruling on said evidence.

From EthicNet on Journalists’ Ethics Code:

“Unbiased journalism does not mean that the journalists should abstain from expressing their personal opinions. However, the reader should be able to tell the difference between the articles stating facts and materials expressing someone’s opinion or interpretation of events.”

This article is entirely aimed at sorting out the legal responsibilities of the federal court in handling a possible charge against Zimmerman. As such, your personal assessment of Zimmerman’s potential guilt in a civil rights case is inappropriate. Points numbered 1-5 are clearly unbiased, stating facts only. Point 6 is made to look like a continuation of unbiased, factual reporting, but it is not. The reader is led to believe that some authority has determined Zimmerman to have profiled Martin, not on suspicious behavior, but on race. Perhaps the public has been led to believe this, but that is only the fault of the media.

http://ethicnet.uta.fi/belarus/journalis ts_ethics_code

Posted by jojoro | Report as abusive
 

“It’s not the race but more of paranoia that drove him to follow/confront Trayvon despite the advise he recieived to not to do so.”

According to Zimmerman’s version, when he was told not to follow Martin, Martin was out of sight and Zimmerman continued on a different path to reach a street in order to find the proper address for the dispatcher (to send a police officer to). Shortly after, on his way back to the car, Martin appeared and confronted Zimmerman. If his story is true, and I’m not saying there’s a possibility that it’s untrue (although the call probably can confirm most of the story up to that point), paranoia did not motivate him either. Watching Zimmerman’s reenactment, I would have liked seeing a situation where the dispatcher had told Zimmerman not to find out Trayvon’s whereabouts from the get go. It might have prevented him from getting out of his car to begin with (at which point he had lost sight of Martin).

Zimmerman’s statement ‘they always get away with it’, seems more plausibly directed at the burglars. The ‘they’ who were responsible for a recent wave of burglary in Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Martin was supposedly first spotted on the lawns in front of a chain of houses, two of which had been targets in the recent past. According to Z, M looked like he was checking the houses out. I do a lot of walking around residential areas, and I’ve never seen people walking on people’s lawns on the way to their destination. People generally stay on the sidewalk.

How is that ‘clearly’ racist? I’m of mixed ethnicity myself, grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood, had countless of immigrant and racially diverse friends, and even I can see there’s no firm evidence of Zimmerman acting out of racial hatred. People are not looking into evidence, not considering all sides of the story before making a judgment. Cool if you do and still come to the conclusion he was racially profiling, but at least base you logical conclusions on facts and available evidence. Just imagine for a second you’re in Z’s shoes and the story he’s told is true. How would you want the public to react?

Posted by jojoro | Report as abusive
 

@Mott,

That may be the “:issue” in the alternate reality you inhabit, but it isn’t in the “real world”!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Yeomans; race inciters like yourself that bait blacks into believing all whites are violent racists serve no good societal purpose. That you claim insight into whether Zimmerman acted as a racist rather than a concerned citizen watch volunteer suggests that you have some sinister motives. Do everyone a favor and just shut up and go away.

Posted by Margaretville | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Yeomans, might want to check some of your facts:

1) “The federal government must, however, conduct a thorough investigation and undertake the rigorous analysis necessary to ensure that the federal interest in punishing civil rights violations is vindicated to the greatest extent possible.” THEY ALREADY DID BEFORE THE CASE EVEN WENT TO TRIAL. FOUND NO RACIAL BIAS ON ZIMMERMAN’S PART. HOLDER HAS HAD THE REPORT FOR ABOUT A YEAR. GOOGLE IT IF YOU LIKE.

2) “For the limited purpose of identifying the interest, prosecutors will assume they can establish racial motivation. The more difficult elements to satisfy are whether the federal interest has been left unvindicated and whether the evidence is likely to lead to conviction.” AND AGAIN, DOJ WILL HAVE A HECK OF A TIME PROVING RACIAL MOTIVATION WHERE THE FBI ALREADY DETERMINED THERE WASN’T ANY. PERHAPS WE SHOULD ALSO INDICT THE FBI? MAYBE THEY ARE ALSO RACIST?

3) “Race plainly played a central role in Martin’s death.” AGAIN, SUPPOSITION. THE MERE FACT BURGLARIES ARE BEING PERPETRATED BY BLACK PERSONS IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD AND YOU VIEW AS SUSPICIOUS AN UNKNOWN BLACK PERSON IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD…NOT RACIST–PARANOID & VIGILANT AT BEST. IF I’M LOOKING FOR A REDHEADED BANKROBBER, I’M NOT LIKELY TO PULL OVER BRUNETTES.

I realize this is an Opinion piece and that investigative reporting has gone the way of the Dodo bird, but surely since you have a law degree you could at least fact check first? Surely you’ve heard the saying “opinions are like @$$holes…everybody has one”…

Posted by sgtrena | Report as abusive
 

How sad that the top federal lawyer and advisor to famous politicians twisted facts and logic so much that general public should teach him both. The article looks like a paper written by D-grade law student who mastered “legalese” and learning how to use it to manipulate the truth; and comments look like a professor explaining why his paper lacks any logic. Only Mr. Yeomans is a professor.
They say “the fish starts to rot from its head”. When we have politicians and lawyers who use their positions to condone the mob violence and drag lawful citizens to courts for resisting it , no wander “sons of Obama” are popping all over the country: just this week 3 sons killed Australian student in Oklahoma, 2 sons killed 88 year old war veteran in Spokane, 2 more killed 1 year old baby in Georgia…
Where is Obama and Holder speeches about these heinous crimes? They are probably too busy preparing federal charges for Zimmerman with Mr.Yomans…
As pathetic as their twisting of the truth looks, it is really dangerous, because -look at the picture above- they unleashed this “all Trayvon” gang on all of us, and showed them that federal government will stand behind them in their crime if the victim is white. No affirmative action in crime!

Posted by guest9 | Report as abusive
 

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