Thousands of demonstrators from across the country – chanting, praying and even fighting tears – protested a jury’s decision to clear neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager while the Justice Department considered whether to file criminal civil rights charges.
Rallies on Sunday were largely peaceful as demonstrators voiced their support for 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s family and decried Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict as a miscarriage of justice.
Police in Los Angeles said they arrested several people early Monday after about 80 protesters gathered in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard and an unlawful assembly was declared. The New York Police Department said it arrested at least a dozen people on disorderly conduct charges during a rally in Times Square.
The NAACP and protesters called for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who was acquitted Saturday in Martin’s February 2012 shooting death.
The Justice Department said it is looking into the case to determine whether federal prosecutors should file criminal civil rights charges now that Zimmerman has been acquitted in the state case. The department opened an investigation into Martin’s death last year but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed.
The evidence generated during the federal probe is still being evaluated by the criminal section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida, along with evidence and testimony from the state trial, the Justice Department said.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and religious and civil rights leaders urged calm in hopes of ensuring peaceful demonstrations following a case that became an emotional flash point.
- Devlin Barrett, covers security and law enforcement for the Wall Street Journal. He tweets @DevlinBarrett.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
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YOUNG: But first, vigils are taking place in Sanford, Florida, where different houses of worship have stayed open for prayer. Hundreds of thousands have signed petitions asking the Department of Justice to open a civil rights case against George Zimmerman, who, of course, was cleared by a jury in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
But what exactly can the Department of Justice do? Devlin Barrett is Department of Justice reporter for the Wall Street Journal. And Devlin, we want to start with you today. Eric Holder, attorney general, is speaking before the country's largest African-American sorority today, this is Delta Sigma Theta. What's he saying?
DEVLIN BARRETT: What he's saying is, he basically urges a national discussion of what he calls some difficult issues. He doesn't specify the issues, but I think we basically understand him to be talking about race and guns.
And he's calling for that discussion to show the same dignity that Trayvon Martin's parents have shown throughout this process. And the other interesting part of what he says is that the nation should do more to combat the type of mistaken assumptions and stereotypes that leads to - that makes these types of situations all too common.
YOUNG: Well, but is that an opening that supporters of Trayvon Martin and his family are looking for, that the Justice Department might think that there was racial profiling in this case that was not considered, that there is a civil rights case?
BARRETT: It's certainly an opening that shows that the department is seriously considering it. But that case, to be clear, that case has been open for about a year, and the fundamental issue for bringing a civil rights case is that some of the particulars of what happened that night don't match up very well with the legal thresholds for a prosecution, either under the hate crimes law or under older civil rights statutes.
And that's, that's the difficulty that the Justice Department lawyers are going to have if they do try to file actual charges against Mr. Zimmerman.
YOUNG: You mentioned that there was an open case, and the Department of Justice did issue a statement yesterday, saying they already had this open investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin. And we just remind ourselves, this was started after George Zimmerman initially wasn't even arrested because Florida allows someone to claim self-defense and not be arrested. But then protests pushed Florida to replace prosecutors, carry out the trial we just saw.
So tell us, it's speculation now, but based on your study of this, what could the DOJ consider if they do go forward?
BARRETT: There's two - there's essentially two avenues the DOJ could look at, and they are, I believe they - my understanding is they are looking at them actively. One is the hate crimes law that was passed in 2009, named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. Under that law, you can charge someone with an act of violence if that act of violence was carried out because of racial animus, because of racial hatred or dislike.
The challenge in the Zimmerman-Martin case, for a prosecution under that, is that there is not much explicit, direct evidence to show that what Zimmerman did he did because Trayvon Martin was black. There are certainly lots of, sort of, what you might call collective or totality of the evidence that people can look at and say, well, that makes me believe that he had a dislike of young black men and acted on that dislike, but you don't have an evidentiary smoking gun, as it were.
YOUNG: Right, and what the defense might have is George Zimmerman's 911 calls, in which he only identifies Trayvon Martin as black after the operator asks him.
BARRETT: Exactly, and that's a big hurdle. Now the other possible avenue is an older civil rights law, which would again get into the issue of you'd have to show that he had a - that Mr. Zimmerman had a discriminatory intent, a racist intent in what he was doing. But the problem with that law is it also comes with additional hurdles, specifically that you would have to make a showing that what Mr. Zimmerman did he did because he was trying to prevent Trayvon Martin from using a public street.
And it's - I'll be honest, from the evidence I've looked at, I don't think there's anything that clearly states that Zimmerman was upset over Trayvon Martin's use of the street itself.
YOUNG: Yeah, and this was the - at issue in the Crown Heights riot case. Is that...?
BARRETT: Correct, and that's the last sort of big case that you can refer back to, where a civil rights prosecution was made of a lone individual, not a law enforcement officer of any kind, being charged with a civil rights violation after that person was acquitted in state court of basically the same set of facts.
And that was a very difficult case to do, different facts and different statements made just before that attack that frankly don't exist in the same way in the Zimmerman case.
YOUNG: In the Crown Heights riot case, Yankel Rosenbaum was attacked because he was using the street, and someone objected. And then you - I just want to mention the Shepard Act, named after Matthew Shepard, attacked and killed because he was gay; James Byrd, you mentioned, because he was African-American. Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal, we will keep an eye on this to see what the Justice Department does. Thank you.
BARRETT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.