Update: The Department of Justice announced on Sunday, after George Zimmerman's acquittal, that it would restart its investigation into the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin and consider possible separate hate crime charges against Zimmerman. "Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction," the department said in a statement.
(The Root) — As the jury in George Zimmerman's second-degree-murder trial began deliberations today, Judge Debra Nelson's instructions were a final reminder that the verdict won't address the questions for which the case will go down in history: whether Zimmerman targeted unarmed teen Trayvon Martin because he was black, whether he followed him because he was black and whether Zimmerman took his life for the same reason. And the kicker: whether you can actually get away with that in America.
The outcome of the criminal trial won't specifically touch any of those issues. The topic of race was largely scrubbed from the attorneys' arguments.
But it's not scrubbed from the legal system entirely.
How? The federal government can investigate and prosecute crimes motivated by racial bias — often known as "hate crimes" — as civil rights violations. The FBI investigates and forwards completed reports to U.S. attorneys and the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, which decide whether a federal prosecution is warranted.
The first suggestion that the federal government had an interest in getting involved in this way in Trayvon Martin's death was when Attorney General Eric Holder said shortly after Trayvon was killed (and before Zimmerman was charged) that the Justice Department was conducting an independent review of the evidence in the case to find out whether a civil rights crime was committed, and the DOJ would take "appropriate action" if it was.
That week the Orlando Sentinel reported, "Ultimately, a U.S. attorney in the region would decide whether to file the hate crime charges," explaining, "To get a conviction, federal prosecutors would have to prove that Zimmerman stalked and killed the unarmed teen because he was black."
In a March 19, 2012, statement, the Department of Justice explained its process and that standard:
"The (Department of Justice) will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation … The department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident. With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids — the highest level of intent in criminal law. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws."
The next day the Orlando Sentinel reported that the U.S. attorney's office had "a team in Sanford … speaking to people in the course of its investigation," which would be "not be a murder or manslaughter investigation but a parallel one into whether the shooter, George Zimmerman, 28, violated Trayvon's civil rights."
Weighing in on Sanford, Fla., television station WFTV's report on the investigation, legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said that for a successful prosecution, the government would have to prove "that Mr. Zimmerman acted out of hatred toward African Americans. That's why he came into contact with [Trayvon]. That's why he shot and killed him."
Mother Jones reported that Tom Perez, the DOJ's assistant attorney general for civil rights, echoed that sentiment. He reportedly emphasized in meetings with civil rights leaders and legislators that the bar for prosecuting Zimmerman under federal hate crimes law would be high.
Since then: A July 2012 announcement by the FBI said it found no evidence that Zimmerman was motivated by racial bias or hatred. Still, there's been no official word by the Department of Justice on a final decision not to press charges.
So, is this really closed case, or is the federal government waiting to see how the state case turns out before deciding whether to proceed (against Zimmerman, or with respect to broader issues covering the practices of the Sanford police)? It's what some are wondering about as the Florida jury deliberates.
Asked at Thursday's daily briefing whether the DOJ is "watching for the outcome" of the state criminal case, and whether the verdict will inform its decision about whether to file civil rights charges, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, "I don't know the answer to that. I would ask the Justice Department."
The Root reached out to the Department of Justice on Wednesday with questions about the possibility of federal charges and did not receive a response before the deadline for this piece.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.