George Zimmerman’s legal troubles are not entirely over. Some are pressuring the Justice Department to charge him with hate crime or other civil rights violations. This would be a mistake. Many would see federal charges as excessive and illegitimate, and some would attribute prosecution to the fact that the President and his Attorney General are black. But even if these perceptions would not exist, federal criminal law should not be invoked. There is always cause for unease when following an acquittal different laws are invoked to punish a person for the behavior evaluated in the first trial. If the evidence was insufficient to justify culpability, the government, even another government invoking different laws, should not get another bite at the apple. An exception for crimes of racial violence is justified when an acquittal appears to have been against the weight of the evidence and motivated by the biases of a local court and/or jury. That is not the case here. The Florida trial was fair, and the judge and jury seemed impartial. The evidence needed to convict was simply not there. Unless persuasive new evidence that Zimmerman committed a crime is uncovered (e.g., Zimmerman brags that he got away with murder) the federal government should let the matter drop. The same is not necessarily true of Martin’s family. They could bring a civil suit, in which the burden of proof would be less than in a criminal case, and Zimmerman would have to testify. A suit by Martin’s parents has more to commend it, both in its prospects for success and for what it could do to flesh out the picture of what happened. But a civil jury too might find for Zimmerman, and if Zimmerman is likely to leave a civil suit with his image somewhat sullied, the same will be true of Trayvon Martin. His parents would be wise to avoid the pain of a legally sanctioned assault on their dead son’s character. Best to leave what is in the past past and to concentrate on making things better in the future. The place to begin making things better is with the repeal of Florida’s stand your ground law.
- Richard Lempert, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution