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DOJ urged to press civil rights charges against Zimmerman

Dylan Stableford, Yahoo News
Yahoo! News

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Zimmerman reacts to the not guilty verdict, July 13, 2013. (Reuters/Pool)

The NAACP, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights activists are calling on the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney Gen. Eric Holder to press federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watchman who was acquitted by a Sanford, Fla., jury Saturday in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

“The most fundamental of civil rights — the right to life — was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin," NAACP President Ben Jealous wrote in a letter to Holder shortly after the verdict was announced. "We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation. Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.”

“This verdict represents a tragic miscarriage of justice," Barbara Arnwine, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. "Yet, there is still the potential for justice to be served through a civil suit brought about by Trayvon Martin’s surviving family members, and also through civil rights charges being brought against Mr. Zimmerman by the Department of Justice."

The Justice Department, which launched a probe of the Zimmerman case last year, released a statement Sunday afternoon.

"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 statement read.

In a keynote speech at Al Sharpton's National Action Network convention last year, Holder — the nation's first African-American attorney general — said, “If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action. And at every step, the facts and law will guide us forward.”

But he cautioned in subsequent public comments that there is a “very high barrier” when seeking to bring federal charges in such cases.

A Justice Department official told CNN late Saturday night that it "continues to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial."

On Sunday, Jackson called on the Justice Department to "intervene" and “take this to another level.”

"I remain stunned at the decision," Jackson said on CNN's "New Day." "That the grown man, armed, murdered the unarmed boy going home."

[Related: Zimmerman not guilty: Newspapers react to verdict]

"I think that we clearly must move on to the next step in terms of the federal government and in terms of the civil courts," Sharpton said on MSNBC Saturday. "Clearly, we want people to be disciplined, strategic. This is a slap in the face to those that believe in justice in this country."

"The trial happened, the verdict came in," Sharpton said on "Meet The Press" on Sunday. "That does not exhaust the legal options of this family, and the bigger community issues of civil rights. We now have a position on the books, in the State of Florida, where an unarmed teenager who committed no crime can be killed and the killer can say self-defense. That is dangerous. That is an atrocity. And I think that must be addressed. I think every American ought to be afraid that, 'My child can do nothing wrong and be killed, and you can use self-defense,' and tell four or five different stories that end up being inconsistent, and still walk away."

Eliot Spitzer, former New York governor and attorney general, called the verdict a "failure of justice."

"An innocent, young man was walking down a street, was confronted by a stranger with a gun and that innocent, young man was shot," Spitzer said on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" on ABC. "The criminal justice system should be able to deal with situations like that. It didn't."

The Justice Department, Spitzer added, is "in a very dicey position because there has been a criminal case.  Double jeopardy is a fundamental principle in our American judicial system, as it should be.  And so it's going to be hard for them to come back at the defendant, and, boy, this is just, understandably, a hugely emotional moment for many people who say, 'That could have been my kid. It could have been my son.'"

Some Republicans, though, criticized the administration for inserting itself into a state-level crime.

"The evidence didn't support prosecution and the Justice Department engaged in this, the president engaged in this and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law and order," Iowa Rep. Steve King said on "Fox News Sunday."

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