Trayvon Martin

Civil rights case urged after acquittal over Trayvon Martin killing

Neighbourhood watchman's acquittal over the killing of Trayvon Martin leads to calls for federal inquiry, with victim's family considering lawsuit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 4:30am

The acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watchman cleared of murdering black teenager Trayvon Martin, spurred new calls for a federal civil rights prosecution and suggestions that the youth's family may bring a lawsuit.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) is pushing US Attorney General Eric Holder to pursue a hate crimes case against Zimmerman, its head said on Sunday on CNN's State of the Union programme.

"There is reason to be concerned that race was a factor in why he targeted young Trayvon," Ben Jealous, the NAACP president, said.

"We know there will be a state phase, there will be a civil phase almost assuredly, and then there will be a civil rights phase," he said. The Justice Department reiterated it was investigating the "facts and circumstances" surrounding the shooting and would take "appropriate action" at its inquiry's conclusion.

The department has a long history of using federal civil rights law in an effort to convict defendants who have previously been acquitted in related state cases. But experience has shown it is difficult to gain convictions in such high-profile prosecutions.

Alan Vinegrad, a former US Attorney, said federal prosecutors "would have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr Zimmerman attacked Mr Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street".

Meanwhile, a Martin family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said Martin's parents would investigate filing a lawsuit outside Sanford, Florida, where the criminal trial was held.

In a wrongful death action against Zimmerman, Martin's family would need to show he was culpable only by a preponderance of the evidence, according to Peter Grenier, a personal injury lawyer at Bode & Grenier in Washington.

The criminal case and acquittal, decided on the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, would be irrelevant to the civil suit under Florida law, Grenier said. American footballer O.J. Simpson - acquitted of murder in the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman - was ordered to pay US$33.5 million after losing a wrongful death trial.

The six-woman jury on Saturday found Zimmerman not guilty of murder and the lesser possible charge of manslaughter for shooting 17-year-old Martin through the heart during a struggle at the townhouse complex where the youth was staying at the home of his father's girlfriend.

Prosecutors alleged Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, profiled Martin as a criminal suspect.

He then followed and confronted him, leading to the incident in which the unarmed youth was killed.

Defence lawyers argued Zimmerman acted in self-defence, fearing for his life after Martin knocked him to the ground.

Zimmerman told police he drew the legally concealed 9mm pistol he carried after Martin told him "You're going to die tonight" and tried to grab it.

Other organisations calling for a Justice Department prosecution include MoveOn.org which said it has joined the NAACP in collecting signatures on a petition to push for a federal investigation.

More than 100,000 people had already signed it, the group said.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, calling for Justice Department action, said the trial was "characterised by racial overtones from the beginning".

Bringing a civil rights case would not be double jeopardy because it would be prosecuted by the US under federal law, Christina Swarns, director of criminal justice at the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, said.

Such cases after a state prosecution were rare, she said.

Congressman Steve King, of the House Judiciary Committee, urged the Justice Department to stay out of the matter.

Additional reporting by Associated Press