July 23, 2013
By Hans A. von Spakovsky
It didn’t take long for Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department to submit to mounting political pressure following the full acquittal of George Zimmerman.
Just one day after the verdict was read in the Trayvon Martin case, the Justice Department pledged: “Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate.”
In other words, because Florida’s judicial system is apparently incapable of ensuring justice on its own, a full-throttled federal investigation is needed to uncover any hint of racist beliefs or tendencies in Zimmerman’s past that might support a prosecution under federal hate-crimes or civil-rights statutes.
To fully appreciate just how problematic it is for the Justice Department to devote the manpower, time and taxpayer dollars necessary to venture out on this evidentiary fishing expedition, a brief examination of the law is in order.
Under the applicable federal hate crimes provision (18 U.S.C. § 249) someone who “willfully causes bodily injury to any person… because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person” is subject to imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine. If a death results from the offense, the defendant faces imprisonment “for any term of years or for life…”
In plain English, this means that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, in order to prevail, must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman’s intent was to kill Martin because he was black. Despite what audio film editors at NBC News would like the public to believe, however, there simply is no evidence that Zimmerman’s actions were based on any racial animus. The Florida prosecutors completely failed to convince the jury that racial animus had anything at all to do with what happened in Sanford.
Recently released files from an FBI investigation demonstrate that even the lead police investigator on the case believed that Zimmerman’s actions “were not based on Martin’s skin color” but on his attire and the overall circumstances. The investigation involved interviews of almost three dozen individuals—including Zimmerman’s neighbors and coworkers—yet it revealed no evidence that Zimmerman possessed any prior racial animus or prejudice, much less that racial animus in any way motivated the confrontation with Martin.
The only other option for the Justice Department is to pursue charges under a civil-rights provision (18 U.S.C. § 245) that protects individuals engaged in certain activities—such as applying to a public college, serving as a juror or traveling between states—from “injury, intimidation, or interference” on the basis of their race, color, religion or national origin. This, however, is arguably an even harder case to prove than the original state murder charge, as there is simply no evidence whatsoever that Zimmerman was attempting to interfere with Martin’s involvement in a federally protected activity.
Despite a striking lack of evidentiary support and a case so flimsy that no objective, reasonable prosecutor would pursue it, Attorney General Holder refuses to let an opportunity to inject a political agenda pass him by. Speaking before the national convention of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in Washington on July 15, Holder declared:
Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised…. We must not—as we have too often in the past—let this opportunity pass.
He continued: “We are resolved… to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents” (emphasis added).
Regardless of the evidence and the outcome of the investigation, Holder appears to have already decided that racial stereotypes and underlying attitudes motivated Zimmerman’s actions.
None of this should come as any surprise, however, as the Justice Department has been unapologetically taking sides since the very beginning of the case. In 2012, Attorney General Holder wasted no time in heading down to Florida after the shooting to stand with groups demanding the arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman. He praised his close friend Rev. Al Sharpton shortly after Sharpton threatened to take things “to the next level” if authorities failed to arrest Zimmerman.
Records also reveal that the Community Relations Service, a division of the Justice Department, may have been directly involved in assisting anti-Zimmerman demonstrations and marches. The actions of the Justice Department, and the public utterances and actions of Attorney General Holder, are reason enough to question the true motivations behind the federal government’s interest in this case.
The very same racist, anti-Semitic New Black Panther Party that Holder refused to prosecute for voter intimidation put a $10,000 bounty on the capture of Zimmerman in early 2012 before charges were formally filed against him. The NBPP renewed its $10,000 bounty after Zimmerman was acquitted. When asked whether the group was soliciting violent behavior, the leader of the NBPP responded simply with, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Yet Holder, who claims he wants “to combat violence,” has never opened an investigation into the NBPP’s threats, which are a blatant call for physical violence against Zimmerman.
The double jeopardy bar in the Constitution that prevents an individual from being tried twice for the same crime does not technically apply to a federal prosecution that occurs after a state prosecution fails. But it is fundamentally unfair for someone like George Zimmerman to be charged by the federal government under a different law, one applied to the very same facts that failed to convince even a single juror that Zimmerman was guilty of manslaughter, much less murder, in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
President Obama’s words should serve as the final guidance to his administration in this matter: “We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” His attorney general should heed those words and close the federal investigation.
- Hans A. von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a former counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. Kyle McCollum is a member of the Young Leaders program at Heritage.
First appeared in The National Interest
Hans A. von Spakovsky
Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
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