The Case Against Retrying George Zimmerman

Now that a Florida jury has acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the U.S. Department of Justice has resumed its inquiry into whether Martin was the victim of a hate crime. The investigation may be necessary and even worthwhile. The answer to the question of whether Zimmerman should be retried in federal court, however, is clear: No.

The Justice Department’s civil-rights investigation, which was put on hold while Zimmerman’s criminal trial was under way, could theoretically uncover new information. And a federal case against Zimmerman might provide a brief catharsis for millions of Americans outraged that an unarmed teen was shot dead, without any criminal penalty imposed on the man who pulled the trigger.

But outrage is not a legal strategy, and catharsis is not something the justice system is especially well-equipped to provide. Pursuing a federal case would ultimately prove both unproductive and unwise.

Outrage at Martin’s fate is understandable. But to succeed in a federal case against Zimmerman, federal prosecutors would have to prove the shooting was racially motivated. That is a high bar -- as it should be. The American system of justice rightly affords great deference toward a jury. Civil-rights charges shouldn’t be deployed to trump an unsatisfying verdict.

Florida’s reckless laws are a more appropriate focus of outrage. The state’s “Stand Your Ground” statute essentially exonerates in advance anyone who shoots a victim dead without witnesses. The state Legislature’s subordination of common sense and public safety to the gun lobby has also resulted in one of the most permissive concealed-carry laws in the nation.

A legal regime that values gun rights over human rights practically invites tragedy. Now that the state trial is ended, the state Legislature should revisit its shoddy work.

The Justice Department’s role, on the other hand, can be brought to a swift and final conclusion. In his speech before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People tomorrow, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder should resist the temptation to tell his audience what, judging by the comments of NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, it may very much want to hear: that a federal case against Zimmerman is likely, if not imminent. If Holder needs further guidance, he should refamiliarize himself with the words of President Barack Obama in his reaction to the verdict.

“I know this case has elicited strong passions,” Obama said Sunday. “And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

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