WASHINGTON - The Justice Department said Sunday it is looking into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin to determine whether federal prosecutors will file criminal civil rights charges now that George Zimmerman has been acquitted in the state case.
The department opened an investigation into Martin's death last year but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed.
In a statement, the Justice Department said the criminal section of the civil rights division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office for the Middle District of Florida are continuing to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal probe, in addition to the evidence and testimony from the state trial.
"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," the statement said. Justice added that it will determine "whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department's policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial."
From the Rodney King case in Los Angeles to the Algiers Motel incident in Detroit more than four decades ago, the Justice Department has a long history of using federal civil rights law in an effort to convict defendants who have previously been acquitted in related state cases.
On Sunday, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous started a petition calling for the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman for the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin, but experience has shown it's almost never easy getting convictions in such high-profile prosecutions.
"The Justice Department would face significant challenges in bringing a federal civil rights case against Mr. Zimmerman," Alan Vinegrad, the former U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, said Sunday. "There are several factual and legal hurdles that federal prosecutors would have to overcome: They'd have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr. Zimmerman attacked Mr. Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street."
As to the last element, the confrontation between Zimmerman and the shooting victim occurred in a gated community, which may not fit the legal definition of a public facility.
"This is an administration that hasn't shied away from bringing hate crimes cases that are solid prosecutions based on the facts and the law, but from what I've seen this would be a very difficult case to prosecute federally because the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman acted because of Trayvon Martin's race," said Samuel Bagenstos, a former No. 2 official in the Justice Department's civil rights division. "If you're trying to prove racial motivation, you are usually looking for multiple statements related to why he is engaging in this act of violence. I think it's a difficult case to prove."