Under Pressure: Justice Department Weighs a Case Against Zimmerman

The agency will have to investigate whether there's enough evidence to merit prosecution.

Posted: 07/16/2013 05:30 PM EDT

The heat is on the Justice Department to prosecute a criminal civil rights case against George Zimmerman after a panel of six white, female jurors found him not guilty in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

The verdict is still out, however, on what the agency will do.

Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the issue in the keynote speech he delivered at the NAACP's annual convention in Orlando, Florida, Tuesday afternoon.

The NAACP is the source of some of the most intense pressure being applied to the agency to prosecute Zimmerman. The civil rights organization has posted a petition on its website asking DOJ to file civil rights charges against him. The initial response was so strong that the site crashed. Today the number of signatures reached one million.

"I want to assure you of two things: I am concerned about this case and as we confirmed last spring, the Justice Department has an open investigation into it. While that inquiry is ongoing, I can promise that the Department of Justice will consider all available information before determining what action to take," Holder said. "Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe this tragedy profides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly -- and openly -- about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised."

The attorney general said much the same thing in a speech delivered at the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority's national conference in Washington, D.C., Monday afternoon, urging both audiences to not allow the opportunity to have that difficult conversation to past as has happened so often in the past. Holder also expressed the hope that "this necessarily difficult dialogue" will be conducted with "the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon’s parents, have demonstrated."

Holder also took a stand on the kind of Stand Your Ground laws that many believe emboldened Zimmerman to go after Martin during his NAACP address.

"These laws try to fix something that was never broken.  There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if – and the “if” is important – no safe retreat is available," he said. "But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.  By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety."

During his daily briefing with reporters Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney would not speculate about what could happen, but stressed that it is entirely up to DOJ.

"Cases are brought on the merits, and the merits are evaluated by the professionals at the Department of Justice," Carney said. "And the president expects, as in every case, that the process will be handled in the way it should be, at the Department of Justice, and certainly not here."

So, what are the agency's options?

According to Barbara Arnwine, who heads the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, it could sue Zimmerman for depriving Martin of his constitutional civil rights, which includes freedom of speech and the right to move or assemble.

It also will consider whether Zimmerman, motivated by race, committed a hate crime against the 17-year-old.

Either will be a challenge, Arnwine said in an interview with BET.com, but like others she is urging the agency to aggressively pursue a case against Zimmerman.

"They will bring a case based on what the statute supports," Arnwine said. "But I think both statutes are available."

Despite intense pressure from civil rights groups, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and ordinary Americans of all races, Christina Swarns, who directs at NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund's criminal justice program, suspects that DOJ will take however much time it needs to deliberate.

"I certainly hope that they're making a comprehensive and deliberate evaluation here," Swarns told BET.com. "The worst thing that could happen, honestly, is that they rush into this case without giving it the time, thought, research and investigation it needs and then there's a second investigation and second acquittal. That would be the worst possible outcome."

A lot will depend on how much information DOJ gathered before and perhaps even during Zimmerman's trial.

If the Justice Department pursues a case against Zimmerman, trial watchers can expect a very different scenario, Arnwine explained.

First, it is less likely that the jury would be all white because the federal court will draw jurors from a pool of several different counties. The composition of the first jury was detrimental because it didn't include an African-American who could share his or her perspective with the others on the panel.

It also allowed the defense team to play into stereotypes, Arnwine said, using a white woman whose home had been broken into by an African-American as an example, as a way to portray Zimmerman as a hero protecting defenseless women against a dangerous Black man.

At the same time, the soft and pudgy Zimmerman who appeared at trial also was a defense tactic to make him seem weaker than the teenager.

"Federal prosecutors will do a better job and be better prepared for the defense's antics and purposeful distortion of George Zimmerman," Arnwine said.

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 (Photo:  REUTERS/David Manning)

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