The Lookout

Federal probe could hang on whether Trayvon Martin was targeted by race

Zachary Roth
The Lookout

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A rally for Trayvon Martin, in Titusville, Fla. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Craig Rubadoux)

After a nationwide outcry, the U.S. Justice Department said late Monday it would investigate the fatal shooting last month of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, in Florida.

"The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation," it said in a statement. "The department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident."

On Tuesday afternoon, the state attorney for Brevard and Seminole counties, Norman Wolfinger, said his office would conduct its own investigation, beginning April 1o.

The federal probe, to be conducted by the FBI and the Justice Department's civil rights division, looks set to focus on whether the shooter, George Zimmerman, violated 17-year-old Martin's civil rights by targeting him because of his race.

Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, was patrolling the streets of a gated community in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 when he spotted Martin and told a police dispatcher that a "black male" was acting "suspicious." Zimmerman, 28, ignored a warning from the dispatcher not to pursue Martin, and a violent confrontation ensued, leaving Martin dead. Zimmerman told local police he acted in self-defense, and he has not been detained or charged, though questions have been raised about the thoroughness of the police investigation.

A classic civil-rights violation occurs when a person is targeted because of his or her race while trying to engage in a federally protected activity, such as voting or riding on public transportation. Martin was merely walking back to the house where he was staying after buying Skittles and iced tea at a nearby store.

But Bradley Schlozman, a former acting head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, told Yahoo News that in the past, courts have found that using a public sidewalk can qualify as a protected activity.

"Under 'streets theory,' individuals have been prosecuted for targeting a minority on the basis of his or her race because they didn't appreciate that they were being on the streets," Schlozman said. "One of the recognized civil rights is being able to walk the streets."

But an FBI policy guide examined by Yahoo News points to a potential hurdle to using streets theory: "Difficulties arise from the necessary step of proving the subject's actions were ... motivated by the subject's intent to prevent the victim  from using the streets." In other words, prosecutors would need to show that Zimmerman targeted Martin because of his race, and that his goal was to stop him from walking down the street.

In the two months before the shooting, Zimmerman had called the police 46 times to report what he saw as suspicious activity. On Monday, the Sanford Police Department released tapes of six of those calls. In four of them, Zimmerman reported "suspicious" persons, all of whom were black.

The National Neighborhood Watch organization has said Zimmerman was not a registered member of any of their local groups.

The state of Florida also can bring charges after conducting its own investigation, but it may be handcuffed by a state law, passed in 2005, that allows Floridians to shoot to kill in response to a perceived threat, rather than first having to retreat before using deadly force. There's evidence the law has made it harder for prosecutors to bring cases in shooting incidents.

The Sanford Police Department has been criticized for failing to conduct a drug or alcohol test on Zimmerman, as is standard practice in homicide cases. And a witness has said a cop "corrected" her account that she heard Martin calling for help in the moments before he died.

"The Justice Department's intervention is critical, because you have a police department that is conflicted in some regards," Barbara Arnwine, the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights told Yahoo News. "They may in fact have some liability for having such a loose gun out there. So it's the perfect circumstance when the Department of Justice would intervene."

African-American leaders, Martin's parents and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across the country had urged state and federal authorities to get involved. On Monday, a White House spokesman called the case a "local law enforcement matter," hours before the Justice Department announced its probe.

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