For some Americans anguished by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the remedy appears obvious: The Department of Justice should mount its own criminal case, and prosecute Zimmerman for violating civil rights or hate crimes statutes in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
The argument has appeal. Federal laws allow prosecutors to make broader arguments, citing broader federal priorities, than does the typical state murder or manslaughter law, more narrowly tailored to adjudicating who caused whose death, and why. Justice at times has won convictions on these federal grounds after courts have acquitted defendants accused of violating local or state laws.
That said, it is often difficult to use federal prosecution to right an alleged wrong done in a state court. More important, the federal statutes are a poor fit for the circumstances of the Zimmerman case and how it played out in Florida. Given those circumstances, it is all but inconceivable that prosecutors could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin's race provoked Zimmerman's activity. Nor should they try.
Federal civil rights and hate crimes statutes evolved, and achieved their prominence and respect, because localities and states egregiously had failed to follow their own protocols for delivering criminal justice. With intentionally shoddy investigations, weak prosecutions and other inadequate efforts, some local and state officials didn't properly pursue criminal cases because of a victim's race, color, religion or nationality.
In such cases, Justice today can insert itself as the designated and well-resourced provocateur. Our national interest in equal justice under law permits this federal intervention into what may originate as local cases born of local crimes.
The Zimmerman case doesn't meet that test. The jurors essentially declared Zimmerman innocent by reason of self-defense -- a crucial point that goes to the heart of the decision on whether Justice now should attempt to prosecute him. Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department said Sunday that "experienced federal prosecutors" will make that decision. They should conclude that the statutes at their disposal weren't written for this case.
Jurors spent weeks hearing the best evidence prosecutors could produce against Zimmerman, yet didn't declare him in the wrong or ill-motivated. Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor, notes that "the prosecution would have the added burden to prove racial animus. It can't be assumed; it has to be proved." Yet federal investigators who interviewed dozens of Zimmerman's friends and co-workers found no one who thought he was a racist. The lead detective in the Sanford police inquiry concluded he was not. Unless Justice has hitherto unseen evidence that racial bias motivated Zimmerman, accusing him of a civil rights or hate crimes violation risks the appearance, but also the reality, of prosecutorial overreach.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman is bound to frustrate many people. But barring decisive new information, the Florida jury's decision ought to be the last word.
-- Chicago Tribune