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The Justice Department is investigating the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, but the department does not have a lot of options if it chooses to move forward with charges. Former prosecutors are highlighting one tool that might help. It's called the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the law makes it a federal crime for someone to engage in violence because of a victim's race or color.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Civil rights groups cheered the news that the U.S. Justice Department would look into the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black youth shot by a man on Neighborhood Watch. Congresswoman Corrine Brown, whose district includes the subdivision where the 17-year-old boy died, put it this way to NPR's TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REP. CORRINE BROWN: My confidence lie with the U.S. Justice Department.

JOHNSON: There's a reason for that, says Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund - the troubling legacy of the 1950s and '60s, when many people may have literally, gotten away with murder because local police didn't do their jobs.

CHRISTINA SWARNS: You know, this goes back to a long history in this country where African-Americans are victims, and state authorities failed to act in a timely and appropriate manner. And, you know, African-American communities have repeatedly had to resort to asking for federal government intervention in these cases.

JOHNSON: But the bar is still high for the Justice Department to make a federal case. There are two main options. One is reserved for cases where a local police officer is the one doing the shooting. But George Zimmerman, who fired the deadly shot in the Trayvon Martin case, was on a Neighborhood Watch. And from what federal investigators understand so far, Zimmerman says he moved in self-defense and doesn't appear to have been acting in an official capacity.

The other way in for the feds is a 2009 hate-crime law. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: MATTHEW SHEPARD WAS 21 YEARS OLD.] It's named after Matthew Shepard, a teenager who was targeted by attackers and left to die because he was gay; and James Byrd, a black man who was dragged behind a truck by his killers. Samuel Bagenstos is a law professor who worked in the Obama Justice Department.

SAMUEL BAGENSTOS: Certainly, a crucial question in determining whether the Shepard-Byrd statute applies is going to be whether Zimmerman acted with discriminatory intent.

JOHNSON: In the 911 call released by the police department, Zimmerman seems to disregard an order to let law enforcement handle the situation. Here's the dispatcher talking to Zimmerman.

(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: Are you following him?

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: OK, we don't need you to do that.

JOHNSON: Just before that exchange, around two minutes and 20 seconds into the tape, Zimmerman appears to mutter a racial epithet under his breath. That could give the Justice Department a hook into the case, Bagenstos says.

BAGENSTOS: If, in fact, Zimmerman was saying a racial epithet right before the shooting, that's going to be a very important piece of evidence.

JOHNSON: Some people think Zimmerman muttered a profanity, but nothing that was racially disparaging. His father told reporters that Zimmerman is Latino and has lots of black friends. But Swarns, of the NAACP, says she has no doubt.

SWARNS: Obviously in the last 24 hours, the enhanced audiotapes have come out, and we can all hear what sounds very clearly to be a racial epithet being used by Mr. Zimmerman before the shooting.

JOHNSON: So far, the Justice Department has charged only a few people with racially motivated assaults under the Shepard-Byrd law. In January, two people from New Mexico got prison time for beating a Navajo man who had developmental disabilities. They drew KKK and white power symbols on the Navajo man's body, and branded him with a hot, wire hanger in the shape of a swastika.

Experts say when prosecutors use that law, juries automatically get instructed that negligence, accidents, mistakes and recklessness are not considered crimes under the federal hate-crimes statute. That means the Florida state grand jury, which can consider manslaughter and other charges with a lower evidentiary bar, may be the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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