George Zimmerman’s Acquittal Sparks Talk of Civil LawsuitTom Schoenberg and Christie Smythe
The acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator cleared of Florida charges that he murdered black teenager Trayvon Martin, spurred new calls for a federal civil rights prosecution and suggestions that the youth’s family may bring a lawsuit.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is pushing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to pursue a hate crimes case against Zimmerman, its head said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” A Martin family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said Martin’s parents would investigate filing a lawsuit outside Sanford, Florida, where the criminal trial was held.
“There is reason to be concerned that race was a factor in why he targeted young Trayvon” Ben Jealous, the NAACP president, said. “We know there will be a state phase, there will be a civil phase almost assuredly, and then there will be a civil rights phase.”
The Justice Department yesterday reiterated a March 19, 2012, statement that it was investigating the “facts and circumstances” surrounding the shooting, and will take “appropriate action” at the probe’s conclusion.
“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,” the department said in an e-mailed statement.
In a wrongful-death action against Zimmerman, Martin’s family would need to show he was culpable only by a preponderance of the evidence, according to Peter Grenier, a personal-injury lawyer at Bode & Grenier LLP in Washington. The criminal case and acquittal, decided on the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, would be irrelevant to the civil case under Florida law, Grenier said.
O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder in the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, was order to pay $33.5 million after losing a wrongful-death trial.
Florida is a comparative-fault state, meaning jurors would weigh both Martin’s and Zimmerman’s culpability.
In Florida, wrongful-death suits claiming negligence must be filed within two years. There is no time limit for suits alleging intentional death. Most cases claim negligence so damages can be covered by the defendant’s homeowner’s insurance, Grenier said.
Individuals found to be justified in using deadly force may be immune from civil liability under Florida law. If the family sues and loses, it might be ordered to pay attorneys’ fees and compensation to defendants, according to state law.
Zimmerman would have to establish immunity in a separate proceeding, Tamara F. Lawson, a professor at the St. Thomas University School of Law, said in a phone interview.
“In any potential subsequent civil case, the court would have to rule if he’s entitled to civil immunity,” she said.
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, said Martin’s family can sue because Zimmerman didn’t seek a hearing under the state’s self-defense law before he was tried.
Anger over the verdict in a case that has drawn national attention for its implications involving race and guns was confined yesterday mostly to statements and threats of further litigation against Zimmerman, 29, described by prosecutors as a police-officer wannabe. Scattered protests occurred in cities including San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
President Barack Obama said in a statement yesterday that “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 six-woman jury on July 13 found Zimmerman not guilty of murder or the lesser crime of manslaughter for shooting 17-year-old Martin through the heart during a struggle at the townhouse complex where the youth was staying at the home of his father’s girlfriend.
Prosecutors alleged Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, profiled Martin as a criminal suspect, then followed and confronted him, leading to the altercation in which the unarmed youth was killed.
Defense lawyers argued that Zimmerman acted in self-defense, fearing for his life after Martin punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground and then pounded his head against the pavement. Zimmerman told police he drew a legally concealed 9-millimeter pistol after Martin told him “You’re going to die tonight” and tried to grab it.
Other organizations calling for a Justice Department prosecution include MoveOn.org, which said in a statement yesterday it has joined the NAACP in collecting signatures on a petition to push for a federal investigation. More than 270,000 people have already signed it, the group said today.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, calling for Justice Department action, said the trial was “characterized by racial overtones from the beginning.”
Bringing a civil rights case wouldn’t be double jeopardy because it would be prosecuted by the U.S. under federal law, Christina Swarns, director of criminal justice at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in a phone interview. Such cases after a state prosecution is rare, she said.
“They’re largely very high-profile, egregious cases like Rodney King and Matthew Shepard,” Swarns said, referring to a black man beaten by police in Los Angeles and a gay man murdered in Wyoming. “We think this falls squarely in the handful of cases where they’ve taken action.”
Robert Valli, a lawyer at Valli Kane & Vagnini in Garden City, New York, which has worked with the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, said the Justice Department will look at text messages, mobile-phone records and Zimmerman’s background to decide whether Zimmerman targeted Martin because he was black.
Representative Steve King, a Republican of Iowa and member of the House Judiciary Committee, urged the Justice Department on “Fox News Sunday” to stay out of the matter.
Obama improperly made case into a political issue, he said.
Soon after Martin’s death, Obama said that if he had a son the child would have looked like Martin. Yesterday he urged all Americans ask themselves if they are “doing all they can to stem the tide of gun violence.”
Jurors heard little about race in the trial until the closing arguments.
Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, told jurors that the only people arrested for crimes in his client’s neighborhood were young black males. He also told jurors that when Zimmerman spotted Martin, the teenager was in front of a home that had been burglarized a few weeks earlier.
The prosecution asked jurors to consider how they would decide the case if the roles were reversed and it was Zimmerman who was shot dead by Martin while walking home in the rain wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
“This case is not about race, it’s about right and wrong, it’s that simple,” Assistant State Attorney John Guy argued.
The jurors, whose identities were withheld throughout the proceeding, were given media requests for interviews before leaving the courthouse last night, and none expressed any interest, Michelle Kennedy, a court spokeswoman, said on Twitter.
Kennedy said that any attempts to identify the jurors would violate Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson’s order requiring they remain anonymous. The issue of their identities will be addressed at a future hearing, she said.
It was the initial handling of the shooting by authorities in Sanford and Seminole County that sparked protests by civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Law enforcement officials declined to arrest Zimmerman and conducted what critics called a cursory investigation, saying the state’s laws on self-defense, including the controversial 2005 Stand Your Ground law, tied their hands.
On March 22, 2012, Republican Governor Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to take over the probe, Angela Corey, the state attorney in Jacksonville, Florida.
After the verdict, Corey said in a news conference that Martin was profiled.
“There’s no doubt he was profiled to be a criminal and if race was one of the aspects in George Zimmerman’s mind, then we believe that we put out the proof necessary to show that Zimmerman did profile Trayvon Martin,” Corey said.
“This isn’t over with,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in an interview yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “I think the Justice Department’s going to take a look at this.”
The case is State of Florida v. Zimmerman, 1712FO4573, Florida Circuit Court, 18th Judicial Circuit, Seminole County (Sanford).