Federal Probe Continues Into Trayvon Martin Shooting
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
The weekend was marked by demonstrations across the country after the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case was announced. A Florida jury's acquittal of Zimmerman for shooting teenager Trayvon Martin may not mean the end of this legal odyssey. Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP is among those who called on the U.S. Justice Department to bring a federal civil rights case.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Mr. Zimmerman's family asked for the country to put faith in the justice system. So do we. And we also remind the country that the justice system still has more moves to make in the case of Mr. Zimmerman.
MONTAGNE: With us to talk about the federal investigation is NPR's Carrie Johnson. Good morning, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: What can the Justice Department do that the state of Florida can't? I mean what would be the federal role here?
JOHNSON: Renee, the Justice Department has a limited role. The Justice Department is empowered to go after hate crimes and civil rights violations that are motivated by racial animus. And the Feds can also weigh in if the local police or local authorities fail to do their jobs from a policing standpoint - if they demonstrate a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing. DOJ has been investigating that first question, whether there was a hate crime here, and it says it's still weighing the evidence, including what came out at this just finished state trial, but bring a federal indictment is going to be very hard in this case.
MONTAGNE: Because the bar is quite high for the federal authorities generally, right?
JOHNSON: That's exactly right, Renee. There are two factors to keep in mind here. First, that authorities would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman acted out of racial animus and with a willful and specific intent. That's really, really hard. It's much harder - lawyers tell me - than the manslaughter charge under which Zimmerman has just been acquitted in the state case. Also there's another factor. That's that the Justice Department guidelines say because of the fear of double jeopardy - trying somebody for the same offense twice - that the federal government doesn't usually bring a case that failed in states unless there's a clear federal interest and that of federal law has been violated. So again we get back to this issue of racial animus.
We know the FBI has conducted about three dozen interviews of Zimmerman's co-workers and neighbors after this incident. And from what we've been able to tell, Zimmerman's co-workers told the FBI that he was not racist.
MONTAGNE: So for one thing, the federal government does look at the original trial, and it sounds like it somewhat is guided by what's happened there. And then there are these FBI interviews. What has Attorney General Eric Holder said about all of this?
JOHNSON: The OJ(ph) officials say that experienced prosecutors in the department are reviewing all the evidence - what came out in the state trial and anything new that may emerge in the days or weeks ahead. They're not going to rush and close this matter.
The attorney general, Eric Holder, has been quiet for now. He's, of course, the first African-American attorney general in the U.S., and he told me in an interview last year that the Martin killing had spurred him to have a talk with his teenage son about this whole complex matter, how to behave in public, how to act when police stop you, that whole complicated set of issues that's come up for so many families. The attorney general's travelling to Orlando Tuesday to talk at a big NAACP convention there. So I'm sure this issue's going to come up. But even before then, Eric Holder's due to give a speech to a prominent African-American sorority whose members are congregating here in Washington, D.C. for their 100th anniversary.
MONTAGNE: Now, if the Justice Department does take a pass, what other legal recourse is open to the family of Trayvon Martin?
JOHNSON: Lawyers for the family say they are considering filing a civil wrongful death lawsuit for money damages. The burden of proof is much lower there. And George Zimmerman may actually be compelled to testify and give evidence in that case in a way that he did not testify in the state prosecution that just ended. That may be where this is heading next, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson.
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