Officials say federal charges vs. Zimmerman are unlikely

Philip Rucker and Sari Horwitz / The Washington Post /

Published Jul 16, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — Current and former Justice Department officials said Monday that bringing civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old in Florida, would be extremely difficult and may not be possible.

Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to continue a federal investigation of the matter, but other officials said in interviews that the government may not be able to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime because it’s not clear that he killed Martin because of his race.

The weakness of the evidence compounds the political problems facing President Barack Obama and Holder, who are under mounting pressure from many liberal and African- American groups to bring a federal case against Zimmerman after a Florida jury acquitted him Saturday of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Obama has responded cautiously to the national uproar, making no public comments other than a carefully worded statement Sunday.

Instead, Holder is acting as the administration’s spokesman on the matter, saying in a speech Monday that Martin’s killing was a “tragic, unnecessary shooting death.” At a previously scheduled luncheon celebrating the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a large audience of black women broke into applause when Holder said, “I share your concern.”

“We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion — and also with truth,” Holder said, adding: “We will never stop working to ensure that — in every case, in every circumstance and in every community — justice must be done.”

Justice Department lawyers are reviewing an investigation of Martin’s shooting begun last year in conjunction with the FBI and state prosecutors in Florida, officials said. Prosecutors are combing through that evidence, as well as testimony from Zimmerman’s state trial, to determine whether to file civil rights charges.

“The Department of Justice wouldn’t bring this case unless they believe they could prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because of his race,” said Rachel Harmon, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

“It’s not enough to show that Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin because of his race,” Harmon added. “They are going to have to show that he attacked Martin for that reason. ... That’s why it’s hard to bring hate crimes in general and likely to be hard to bring them in this case.”