Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Federal Hate Crime Charges Unlikely for George Zimmerman

In case you have been living under a rock, George Zimmerman was acquitted of Second Degree Murder and Manslaughter charges stemming from the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.  Every layperson, legal pundit and media correspondent from DC to LA has weighed in on some aspect of the verdict.  My Twitter feed exploded on Saturday night and blog posts and news articles continue to trickle in by the dozens.  

It seems that most citizens and pundits fall into one of two categories.  One group of people believe that although the death of Trayvon was tragic and totally avoidable had George Zimmerman simply declined to pursue Trayvon, the verdict was one that was legally sound as the prosecution simply failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The other group of people have labeled the verdict the biggest case of legal injustice in decades and are convinced that Zimmerman was acquitted because he was white (even though Zimmerman considers himself Latino) and his victim, young Trayvon Martin, was black.  I happen to fall into the former category, I believe the State of Florida was overzealous in their decision to charge Zimmerman with Second Degree Murder and they simply had insufficient evidence to prove he committed that crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  My position is somewhat influenced by the fact that I am a criminal defense lawyer in DC.  However, as someone who has also been a prosecutor I am acutely familiar with the concept of both proving and failing to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  The state simply did not have the evidence they needed to win this case.

With that said, this post is not about whether the verdict was legally sound, whether the prosecution messed up, or whether Zimmerman's acquittal amounts to injustice of the highest degree.  I am writing this post to address the question of whether or not George Zimmerman will face federal hate crimes charges, something that Attorney General Eric Holder has announced is being considered by the Justice Department.

According to federal law it is unlawful for someone to willfully cause bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, or attempt to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.  So if the DOJ wanted to convict Zimmerman of a federal hate crime, they would have to prove that Zimmerman inflicted bodily harm upon Trayvon Martin specifically because he was African American.  

Unless there is a significant amount of evidence that the DOJ has access to that the State of Florida elected not to use in their trial, there is absolutely no way that the DOJ can prove Zimmerman inflicted bodily injury because Trayvon Martin was black.  

Although there is some evidence that tends to show Zimmerman was suspicious of Martin because he was a young black man and that may have been the reason he approached him, there is no evidence that Zimmerman shot him because he was black.  In fact, a jury of 6 Floridians just found that Zimmerman shot Martin because he was acting in self defense.  In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, one of the jurors plainly said "Zimmerman's heart was in the right place" when he pursued Martin.  So basically, she felt that the evidence proved the exact opposite of what the DOJ would have to prove in order to convict him of a hate crime.  This is a woman who sat through the entire trial and was presented with the exact same evidence that would be presented at a federal hate crime trial.  

The bottom line is that Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice have to take the public stance that they are evaluating the case for federal hate crime charges.  However, I believe that is simply a means to help minimize the overwhelming public outrage over the verdict.  In a few weeks or months, when the backlash begins to calm and the dust begins to settle, the DOJ will release a statement that there is insufficient evidence to support the filing of federal hate crimes charges.  There will be some people who are outraged by this decision and who will take that as yet another manifest injustice, but quite frankly, there is no other choice.  If the DOJ charges Zimmerman with federal hate crimes it will be purely due to political pressure and they will have virtually no chance of convincing a federal jury to find him guilty.  

At the end of the day, 17 year old Trayvon Martin is dead, and no matter what you think about the verdict, we can all agree that his death was an avoidable tragedy.  I hope that as a society we can focus on that aspect of this story and not let our personal feelings about the verdict, or race, or injustice cause us to lose site of the bigger picture, a child is dead and he doesn't have to be.

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