Zimmerman did not request immunity when facing criminal charges. In a civil suit, he could and very likely would do so to protect any assets he may have, including cash donated to him by supporters, Lave said.
“If that happened, and it is extremely likely that it would, given that he has just been acquitted, no one can bring a civil case against him, not even Trayvon Martin’s parents,” Lave said.
Federal criminal court — hate-crimes charges or allegations that Zimmerman violated Trayvon’s civil rights — may be the family’s only hope for any kind of redress, she said. But such a case won’t be easy. Federal prosecutors will have to rely on some of the same evidence and what Lave called the “shoddy” early investigation conducted by Sanford police that hamstrung the state prosecutors. And unlike civil court, federal criminal prosecutions require the government to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Zimmerman would also have a right to a federal jury trial and the option not to testify in court. The federal government can’t bring charges simply because of public pressure, she said.
“It is going to be a difficult case for the feds,” said Lave. “But that being said, prosecutors are supposed to be interested in justice. And even a loss in federal court would send a powerful message that this kind of conduct is not OK.”
The automatic, almost reflexive and unexamined links that some Americans make between young black men, crime and danger are fed and reinforced almost every day in most movies, commercials, music and even on some news networks, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a nonprofit social justice organization. Color of Change plans to mobilize people outraged by the Zimmerman verdict to push for federal charges and a sea change in media depictions of young black men, Robinson said.
“People may be inclined to dismiss this, but we need look no further than young, black men like Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and Jordan Davis to understand the power of media to shape these negative perceptions, and that those ideas can have grave consequences.”
Since Trayvon’s death last year, conditions at the shooting scene have changed, and some witnesses and people with valid information may have become harder to find or moved away. And the town’s mostly conservative white residents are said to largely support Zimmerman. But civil rights investigations are frequently challenging.
A special Department of Justice division created to investigate unsolved or unresolved race-related cases involving crimes that occurred decades ago has extra resources for its work. This cold-case unit has identified 112 cases with 125 victims, according to the division’s most recent report (pdf) to Congress. It has since closed 89 cases and prosecuted just three.
The numbers are discouraging, and under previous conservative administrations civil rights prosecutions of even current cases became rare, said Christina Swarns, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s interim litigation director and director of the criminal justice project. But, this is 2013, a time when faith in the criminal justice system and its pursuit of justice should be affirmed, Swarns said. So, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has also joined the call for a federal investigation.
“If the states are unwilling or unable to provide justice, the federal government has to step in,” Swarns said. “It just can’t be that black children can be killed because of their race, there’s no answer and we all go home.”
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due out next year.