The Justice Department on Sunday said it was reviewing whether to bring a civil rights case against George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator found not guilty of murdering Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — a verdict that heightened pressure on the Obama administration to intervene in the simmering controversy.
“As the department first acknowledged last year, we have an open investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin,” the Justice Department said Sunday. “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, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the Department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.”
Earlier in the day, however, President Obama said that the jury of six Floridians had already spoken, and he used the high-profile moment to dial down tensions across the country.
“In the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher,” Obama said. “But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
The president also said, “We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis.”
NAACP president Ben Jealous, head of the nation’s largest civil rights organization, said Sunday that his group was involved in ongoing talks with the Justice Department about charging Zimmerman.
Opening a civil rights case against Zimmerman would be a risky proposition for the Obama administration. Though critics of the verdict are calling for action, the Justice Department would risk being viewed as politically motivated and engaging in a case of double jeopardy.
The FBI interviewed dozens of Zimmerman’s acquaintances last year and found no evidence of racial motives.
But others point to Obama’s own involvement in the matter — “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” the president said earlier this year — as a rallying cry. And the president could face significant blowback from many of his most loyal supporters if the Justice Department stands down.