Zimmerman: Do the Feds Have a Case?

In federal court, there may be no case more difficult to prove than a racially motivated crime.

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Prosecutors would have to convince a jury that Zimmerman had racist thoughts not when he profiled Trayvon or called the dispatcher or followed him, but during the fight -- especially in the moment when he decided to fire his gun.

That requires a witness who overheard Zimmerman use racial epithets or similarly offensive language at the time, or if he bragged later, or a previous pattern of Zimmerman making racist statements.

This kind of evidence helped the Justice Department win 141 convictions on hate crimes in President Obama's first term, up 74 percent from the prior four years. Samuel Bagenstos, who oversaw the cases as Holder's No. 2 official in the Civil Rights Division, says the racial intent found among the defendants wasn't subtle or "unconscious" but "overt."

Meanwhile, Holder has been known to disappoint civil rights leaders. The Justice Department declined to prosecute New York cops acquitted in the 2006 shootings of three men, including 23-year-old Sean Bell, who died in the fracas on the morning of his wedding day. Why no charges? A lack of evidence, the Justice Department said.

Indeed, the problem with Trayvon's shooting is a problem of evidence. Nobody seems to have witnessed the shooting. And the FBI report compiled last year found no evidence of racial bias. The lead police investigator concluded Zimmerman's actions were "overzealous" and reflected a "hero complex," but not racist.

"This looks like a much harder case to prove than the standard run of hate crimes cases the government brings," Bagenstos says.

Any hope for a conviction, such as it was, may have vanished when Zimmerman walked out of the Seminole County courthouse a free man.

Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter. 

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