WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday called the killing of Trayvon Martin a "tragic, unnecessary shooting," and said the Justice Department will follow "the facts and the law" as it reviews evidence to see whether federal criminal charges are warranted.
In his first comments since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Martin case, Holder said the 17-year-old's death provides an opportunity for the nation to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally charged issues. He said the nation must not forgo an opportunity toward better understanding of one another.
"I hope that we will approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon's parents, have demonstrated throughout the last year — and especially over the past few days," Holder said. "They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure — and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive."
The Justice Department is examining evidence in the case and testimony from the state trial to determine whether criminal civil rights charges would be brought. However, legal experts say Justice officials would likely be saddled with some of the same challenges that complicated the unsuccessful state case. The key to charging Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, lies in whether evidence exists that he was motivated by racial animosity to kill Martin, who was 17 when he was shot during a fight with Zimmerman in February 2012.
"There is a federal prosecution that theoretically is possible, but I'm sure federal prosecutors would think long and hard, given the state of the evidence, whether they would try to pursue that," said Scott Sundby, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at the University of Miami law school. "You'd have to prove that George Zimmerman was seeking out to commit the crime against Trayvon Martin, specifically because he was African-American."
President Barack Obama won't involve himself in the Justice Department's decision on whether to pursue a civil rights case because it would be inappropriate for the president to express an opinion on how the department deals with Zimmerman, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
Zimmerman, 29, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges Saturday by a jury in Seminole County after claiming he fired his weapon in self-defense only after Martin attacked him. No evidence surfaced in the trial that Zimmerman had a racial bias, and his friends and family have repeatedly denied he harbored racial animosity toward blacks. Florida did not use its own hate crime laws against Zimmerman.
Holder's comments on the case came in a speech to the 51st national convention of the Delta Sigma Theta, the nation's largest African-American sorority, and drew strong applause with his characterization of the shooting: "We are . . . mindful of the pain felt by our nation surrounding the tragic, unnecessary shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford last year."
Martin's family and supporters maintain that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin and decided to follow him, leading to the fatal fight. Supporters of the Justice Department filing civil rights charges say additional evidence could exist in the federal investigation that didn't come up in the state prosecution of Zimmerman, possibly even unknown witnesses.
Several civil rights groups, including the NAACP, are demanding that the Justice Department bring federal charges against Zimmerman, and there have been numerous protests around the country about the outcome of the trial. Beyond the exact language of the law itself, the federal probe must navigate between sensitive racial and political issues that arose when Zimmerman initially wasn't charged in Martin's killing.
Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the verdict "a travesty and miscarriage of justice" and urged the Justice Department to bring criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
Zimmerman could get life in prison if charged and convicted under federal hate crime laws.
Several former prosecutors said they'd be surprised if the department were to charge Zimmerman under civil rights laws.
"I think it would be a very steep, if not insurmountable, hill to climb and would be shocked to see any further DOJ involvement," said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S attorney in Miami.
Sundby said the legal system does not always provide an outcome that satisfies every member of the public.
"That's frustrating as a lawyer to say, but sometimes the legal system — even if there's a sense that an injustice was done — it doesn't have an answer to that injustice," he said.