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Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The moment George Zimmerman was acquitted the NAACP and the Reverend Al Sharpton immediately called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to bring civil rights charges against him. The Justice Department has already conducted an exhaustive investigation to determine whether Zimmerman killed Martin out of racial animus. It found no evidence of that. That’s one hard and fast requisite for a civil rights prosecution. The other is that the state so bungled the prosecution of a defendant that in effect it nullified the intent of the law, namely to insure that justice was truly served. On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be the case with Zimmerman.
Still, the call for Holder to strongly consider a federal prosecution is the right call. There are several factors within federal law that federal prosecutors must look at to determine whether there is a “compelling interest” in a second prosecution of a defendant who’s been acquitted in a state court. It must involve a substantial federal interest, the state prosecution must not have vindicated that interest, the government must believe that the defendant's conduct could constitute a federal offense, and that there is still sufficient evidence against the defendant that the government can obtain a conviction.
There are clear elements of each of these hard federal prosecution requirements in the Zimmerman case. The compelling interest is probably the easiest of the requisites to satisfy. The defense and prosecution agreed that Martin did not commit a crime, was not even suspected of a crime, and was on a public thoroughfare when he was killed. The right to freedom of movement without the danger of undue harm is a fundamental right that’s enshrined in constitutional law and public policy. It’s inviolate. The courts have repeatedly upheld a citizen’s right to freedom of access and movement in public places.
Though there was no apparent racial motive in Zimmerman’s confronting Martin, his action clearly violated Martin’s right to exercise his freedom of movement. This directly impacts on an individual’s right to life and liberty. This civil right was violated the moment Zimmerman presumed that a young black man walking on public sidewalk had committed a crime. The safeguard of that right must be a fundamental concern of federal prosecutors.
The Martin case also strongly pointed to systemic issues of excessive force, the excessive force being the slaying of Martin. This strikes to the heart of another basic right of citizens, namely the right to life and liberty, and again the freedom from undue harm. There was audio evidence that strongly hinted that it was Martin who was screaming for help and therefore was under physical assault from Zimmerman. Therefore it was his life, not Zimmerman’s, that was in mortal danger. This is sufficient cause for federal prosecutors to question whether the jury ignored the fact that Martin was the victim, and Zimmerman was the assailant. This is one of the basic ingredients in determining whether the jury nullified a compelling prosecution fact.
The Martin case raised deeply troubling questions about the power of the law to protect citizens from their unimpeded right to life and safety. Federal prosecutors play a major role in insuring that where there’s the suspicion that an individual's rights might have been violated solely because of their race and gender that the power of federal law is brought to bear to insure that that right is protected.
Zimmerman was not a police office and did not abuse his power in killing Martin under the color of law. However, he was acting in a quasi-legal capacity as a one-time neighborhood watchman who had close ties and collaboration with local law enforcement. This in effect bestowed on him the presumption of authority to take action to stop and question an individual he considered a crime suspect. This was the rationale that federal prosecutors used in the Rodney King beating case to bring civil rights charge against the four LAPD officers that beat King. The linchpin was that they acted in an official capacity when they violated King’s rights.
The Justice Department scrupulously tries to avoid a dual prosecution of a defendant acquitted in a state court. It goes to great lengths to shield itself from the charge that it’s bowing to media or public pressure to prosecute. This is why the percentage of civil rights prosecutions it authorizes is infinitesimally low. Yet in the Martin slaying there are crucial federal interests in insuring the rights of individuals to be free from undue harm because of their color, age, and being in a public area merely because someone perceives they shouldn’t be in and then acts on that perception with no cause other than that belief or perception.
If the Justice Department gives serious consideration to the civil rights violations in the Martin case, it will again send the strong message that civil rights violations will always be subject to full and public scrutiny by federal prosecutors. This is exactly why Attorney General Holder has a more than compelling reason to consider a Zimmerman civil rights prosecution.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is America on Trial: The Slaying of Trayvon Martin (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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