The “not guilty” verdict handed down on Saturday night in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman murder trial in Florida may not have ended the case that has fascinated the cable news stations and engendered furious discussions about race in America. While the relatively quick decision by the jury seems not to have provoked the widespread and violent civil disturbances that many doomsayers predicted should Zimmerman not be convicted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, it has inspired a second round of political interference in the case from Washington. Just as political pressure from the highest office in the land as well as the threats of the Department of Justice to involve itself in the matter led the State of Florida to overturn the sensible decision of local police and prosecutors not to prosecute Zimmerman, the jury’s decision to reject the charges has prompted another threat of federal intervention.
Today, as much of the country determined to make their peace with a decision that brought a conclusion to what can only be fairly described as a tragedy, once again the Department of Justice is threatening to roil the waters anew. While the president issued an extraordinary statement urging the country to accept the jury’s verdict—a strange statement made necessary by the president’s unfortunate comments last year in which he seemed to heighten the pressure on authorities to prosecute by claiming that Martin might have been his son—the DOJ issued the following comments:
“Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial,” a department spokesman said.
While it is to be hoped this statement is a pro forma pronouncement intended merely to signal the president’s supporters that he shares their umbrage at the verdict, it is still a shocking and unjustified threat that ought to be withdrawn immediately.
There is no doubt that what happened that night in February 2012 as a result of the scuffle between Zimmerman and Martin was a tragedy. The jury seems to have accepted that what Zimmerman did was a matter of self-defense. But the death of a 17-year-old boy under such circumstances should grieve us all even if there was insufficient proof that Zimmerman’s actions were illegal and much reason to believe that he might well have had reason to believe he was in danger during the fight.
Given the lack of evidence and the quick manner with which the jury dispatched their duties after such a lengthy trial, the decision by the authorities to overrule the original decision not to prosecute what appeared to be a matter of self-defense seems to be spectacularly ill judged. In retrospect, the decision was clearly a matter of political pressure rather than based on the merits.
But any decision to pursue the matter as a civil rights violation in which the federal government will attempt to retry the case is outrageous.
Since a local prosecution in which the government failed in a spectacular manner to establish that what happened was murder, what possible hope can the DOJ have that a federal trial, in which they would be faced with an even higher burden of proof, would yield a different result?
The one good thing about the trial, whose televised sessions seemed to transfix the country and pre-empt almost all other news during the last few weeks, was that both sides seemed to agree the incident was not driven by race. Zimmerman is Hispanic and there is no evidence that what he did was motivated by racial sentiments even if he may have shown poor judgment as a neighborhood watch volunteer. But the only possible reason for the Obama administration’s decision to consider another effort to prosecute Zimmerman is an attempt to retry the case as a matter of race.
This is unfortunate for two reasons.
The slender prosecution case that failed to convict Zimmerman was weak enough. But if the government decides to retry the case in this manner it will be so transparently political in nature as to make it border on misconduct more than bad judgment.
Moreover, to force the nation to undergo yet another round of recriminations over this case with the added pain of racial overtones that would be caused by the civil rights charge would go beyond irresponsibility. It would be a blatant instance of race baiting that would give the lie to the president’s attempt to walk back his own intervention.
Americans are right to deplore Martin’s death no matter what the circumstances—the truth of which is something that no living person other than Zimmerman can know with certitude—and are free to disagree with the verdict if they like. But if the administration chooses to fan the flames of racial resentment like this it will have undone any little good that might have come from this awful event. Another prosecution is unlikely to prevail. But if it is undertaken, it may well do as much or more to worsen race relations than anything George Zimmerman might have done.