U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, resuming an investigation into the fatal shooting of a black teenager in Florida, will travel to the state today to speak to the group that’s demanding civil-rights charges in the case.
As he speaks at the NAACP’s annual convention today, the public focus for the country’s first black attorney general has shifted from the probe to a broader dialogue on race -- a topic he has tried to broach with varying degrees of success during his more than four years leading the Justice Department.
“This tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised,” Holder said yesterday in a speech to the national convention of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in Washington. “We must not -- as we have too often in the past -- let this opportunity pass.”
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman exposed anew racial divisions in the U.S. Zimmerman’s acquittal on a state second-degree murder charge by a Florida jury on July 13 prompted scattered protests in cities including San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
Holder, who is married to Dr. Sharon Malone, the sister of Vivian Malone Jones, one of the first two African Americans to enroll at the University of Alabama, has made civil-rights enforcement a focus of his tenure. Yet in the Martin case his department faces significant hurdles, according to former prosecutors.
The investigation, run by the criminal section of the department’s civil-rights division, may turn on divining Zimmerman’s intent.
Samuel Bagenstos, the former No. 2 official in the Justice Department’s civil-rights division under Holder, said that based on what he has seen, it would be “very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Zimmerman was motivated by race when he followed and, after a fight, killed Martin.
“To prove what’s on somebody’s mind is always difficult,” Bagenstos, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, said in an interview. “To prove what’s on somebody’s mind in a fight that took place between two people, one of whom is dead, the other of whom doesn’t have to testify and with no other witnesses around to hear what he has to say, is very, very difficult.”
The group Holder is addressing today has circulated a petition that seeks to pressure Holder’s prosecutors to bring criminal civil-rights charges in death of Martin, 17, at the hands of Zimmerman, 29.
Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said on July 14 that the organization’s staff had been in contact with Holder’s senior staff and were pushing for action in the case.
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, along with a group of about 20 clergy men and women, assembled in front of the Justice Department building in Washington today to call on Holder to bring charges.
“We want the Justice Department to seriously pursue this,” Sharpton told reporters. He said his group will hold vigils at federal buildings in 100 cities across the U.S. on July 20 to increase pressure on the federal government to act.
The Justice Department opened its investigation into Martin’s death a month after the shooting occurred in Sanford, Florida. Federal prosecutors deferred to state authorities while the case made its way through Florida’s system.
Holder said yesterday that the investigation will continue in “a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law.”
The tragedy provides the opportunity, however, to engage in the “difficult dialogue” that comes with the racial tensions brought to the forefront in case, he said.
While the tone of Holder’s comments on race may have moderated since he drew rebukes from inside and outside of President Barack Obama’s administration for saying the U.S. was “essentially a nation of cowards” for its inability to foster discussions about race, the intent has not.
“We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion -- and also with truth,” Holder told the crowd yesterday assembled for the historically black sorority’s 100th anniversary. “We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents.”
Holder regularly highlights the successes of his civil-rights division, which prosecutes discrimination cases, in his public remarks. Its work on prosecuting hate crimes, lending discrimination and alleged discrimination in voting statutes has been a specific focus -- even as some of that work has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The division challenged state voter identification laws around the country in the months before the 2012 election, obtaining favorable judgments in four cases under the preclearance requirements in the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court last month struck down a key part of the law, a formula for determining which states must get federal approval for changes to their voting laws.
Holder yesterday called the high court’s decision “flawed” and said his department is “eager to work with congressional leaders of both parties” to craft new legislation to “fill the void left by the court’s ruling and address voting rights discrimination.”
Voting rights probably will be one of the topics he addresses in today’s speech.
The Justice Department started its investigation of the Martin case in March 2012, with top officials from the department’s civil-rights division traveling to Sanford, Florida, as part of the probe. Prosecutors would likely be looking to see if they could bring charges under the Matthew Shepard Act, the 2009 law signed by Obama that expanded prosecution of hate crimes.
In part because of the new law, the department’s civil-rights division has increased its focus on hate crimes during Obama’s first term, convicting 141 defendants on charges in the fiscal years of 2009 through 2012, according to the department. That marked a 74 percent increase from the previous four-year period.
Bagenstos said there’s a possibility that any civil cases over Martin’s death would be delayed while a criminal inquiry is pending. That may stall a potential wrongful-death lawsuit by Martin’s family against Zimmerman.
That places the focus on the federal probe -- something the Justice Department said would now include a review of evidence and testimony from the state trial. For the federal prosecutors working on the case, the focus will be on whether the evidence is there for charges, not the emotionally charged nature of the case, Bagenstos said.
“It’s something they are used to and that they filter out,” Bagenstos said. “Everything that the criminal section of the civil rights division does is very politically charged.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Phil Mattingly in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org