Zimmerman Could Still Be Charged for a Hate Crime
A jury has acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the February 26, 2012, shooting death of Trayvon Martin. 28-year-old Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer, killed (as he admitted to police) Martin with a handgun in Sanford, Florida. The teenager had been returning home carrying a can of iced tea and a pack of Skittles. Zimmerman claimed that he had fired in self-defense in accordance with the state’s “stand your ground” law; he was released without being charged that same night. Zimmerman was only arrested 44 days afterwards amid a massive public outcry and the intervention of President Barack Obama.
The jury was composed of six women, five of whom were white and one of whom was Hispanic. They found Zimmerman not guilty on the charges of second-degree murder as well as a lesser charge of manslaughter.
DOJ Restarts Hate Crimes Inquiry
For all that the case was “driven entirely by racial profiling,” as Colorlines notes, the courtroom proceedings “studiously sidestepped race.” Judge Debra Nelson did not allow attorneys to use the term “racial profiling” during the trial.
On Sunday, the day after the verdict — which resulted in thousands rallying in the streets of cities across the U.S., in Sanford, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Newark, to name only a few places — the Department of Justice said that it was reopening its investigation of possible hate crime charges against Zimmerman. The DOJ had began a hate crimes inquiry shortly after Martin was killed but had delayed it while the state trial in Florida was underway.
The DOJ sets a very high bar for prosecuting a hate crime and there are many challenges to seeking such in the case of Martin’s death. Under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, were the government to charge Zimmerman with a hate crime, it would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he “acted willfully with a seriously culpable state of mind,” Samuel Bagenstos, who until 2011 was the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, explains. That is, the government must establish that Zimmerman acted with discriminatory intent in shooting Martin.
Civil rights leaders state that Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin indeed had such a racial element.”There is a pattern of George Zimmerman making dozens of calls to 911 over several years, frequently about young men of color,” Benjamin T. Jealous, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in the New York Times. One key piece of evidence is likely to be a 911 call that Zimmerman made on the night he shot Martin. In that call, Zimmerman said that Martin — who was warned by the operator not to follow the teenager – -had “suspicious behavior”; he also said that the teenager was “up to no good, on drugs or something” and used the phrase “f—ing punks.”
Verdict Delivers a Chilling Message: It is “open season on black boys”
It is imperative that the U.S. government investigate the killing of Martin as a hate crime. The Florida jury’s verdict has delivered a chilling message, that it is now “open season on black boys,” writes Gary Younge in the Guardian.
In his statement after the verdict was announced, Obama emphasized that the U.S. is “a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken” and called on Americans to “respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” But as Younge says, parents of black boys and those whose partners are black men are certainly not likely to feel calm about what could happen when a loved one ventures out in public.
Guerlie Bazile Arglade has a 20-year-old son and lives in the affluent New Jersey community of Short Hills. She attended a rally on a broiling hot Sunday in downtown Newark, saying that the verdict is proof that a young African-American man can be recognized as a stranger, an outsider, in his own community. “When he comes home late at night, I fear he’ll be killed by someone who doesn’t realize he belongs here,” Arglade said of her son.
There have been reports of vandalism in Oakland and arrests have been reported in New York, but most protests have been peaceful, countering inflammatory pronouncements by the likes of Newt Gingrinch that protesters would be a “lynch mob” and a fake video of riots in Miami. Larry Hamm, founder of People’s Organization for Progress and an organizer of the rally in Newark, underscored the need to keep the protests nonviolent, saying “a violent response would have defeated the goal we’re working toward.”
Indeed, as one commenter, jay smooth, wrote on Twitter after the verdict, “The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it is more George Zimmermans.”
Photo Credit: Werth Media on Flickr.