The Justice Department’s decision to investigate the fatal shooting of an unarmed African American Florida teen by a white member of the neighborhood watch is an unusual step, experts say — one hastened by the case’s racially-charged, high-profile nature. And it is unlikely to result in a prosecution.
“It’s an unusual and extraordinary step by DOJ,” said Michael Seigel, a law professor at the University of Florida and a former federal litigator with the U.S. Attorney’s office, during the Clinton administration. “They usually do it when it’s controversial and high
“The higher profile the case the more likely the Justice Department is to get involved,” said David Remes, an attorney with Appeal for Justice, a human rights and civil liberties law practice. “Justice may be blind but its resources are not infinite.”
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The shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. last month by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch captain who is claiming self defense, sparked broad public outcry and criticism of police handling of the matter.
While unusual, there is precedent for the Justice Department getting involved during these types of cases, Seigel said.
During the 1990s, the Justice Department stepped in to prosecute police officers accused of beating African-American motorist Rodney King, after the cops were acquitted in state court. During the federal civil rights trial, two officers were found guilty.
In 2010, federal prosecutors intervened in the case of the racially-motivated death of Luis Ramirez by members of the Shenandoah Valley, Pennsylvania, High School football team, who shouted epithets as they beat Ramirez, who died of head injuries after repeated blows to the head.
After an all-white state jury found them innocent of the most serious charges, DOJ prosecutors successfully won convictions against them under the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it a crime to target a person based on their race or ethnicity in relation to where he or she chooses to live. (The men who beat Ramirez had said they didn’t want Latinos living in Shenandoah.)
The federal jury also found several Shenandoah Police Department officers guilty of obstructing efforts to investigate Ramirez’s death.
In the Martin case, the department is likely to first closely watch how Florida officials handle it in the face of increased public pressure. And one DOJ official, who did not want to be quoted, said at least the initial evidence suggests it will be hard to prosecute Zimmerman under federal hate crimes law.
“While the investigation of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin will go forward, it will be difficult to prosecute the case under federal law. Civil rights law protects against hate crimes or actions by police officers, but Martin’s shooting may not have either of those elements,” the official said.