The Next Three Trials of George Zimmerman

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The Next Three Trials of George Zimmerman
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The Next Three Trials of George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman has not seen his last courtroom. There are at least three other legal actions possible involving the man acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin—two of which would see Zimmerman again in the role of defendant. In at least one of those, Zimmerman might justifiably be nervous about his chances. But he may go three-for-three.

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The three possible lawsuits:

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The United States v. George Zimmerman

The case: In March of last year, shortly after Trayvon Martin was killed, the Department of Justice announced its intent to review the case and determine if Zimmerman violated federal law in the killing. That investigation was initiated while Martin's family was still advocating for a criminal case filed by the state; once Zimmerman faced state charges, the Justice Department's investigation was tabled, according to The Times.

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In a statement yesterday, the department indicated the case was being resumed. Fox News reported on Justice's announcement.

"The Department of Justice's Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial," the Justice Department said in a statement Sunday. "Experienced federal prosecutors will [now] 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."

This language is similar to that used in the department's original statement.

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In the aftermath of the verdict, there were widespread calls for federal action. Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, contacted Attorney General Eric Holder to ask for federal charges; a petition introduced by the organization was widely shared. As were petitions at the White House website, as The Hill reports.

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The likely winner of this case: Zimmerman—since it's unlikely the Department will press charges.

It's unlikely that the government will pursue criminal civil rights charges in The case: The Times explains why.

Three former Justice Department officials who once worked in the department’s Civil Rights Division, which is handling the inquiry, said Sunday that the federal government must clear a series of difficult legal hurdles before it could move to indict Mr. Zimmerman.

“It is not enough if it’s just a fight that escalated,” said Samuel Bagenstos, who until 2011 served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the division. “The government has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully with a seriously culpable state of mind” to violate Mr. Martin’s civil rights.

A former U.S. Attorney explained to the Associated Press what that means in this specific case: "They'd have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr. Zimmerman attacked Mr. Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street." That the killing occurred in a gated community may be enough to block any action by the Department of Justice.

There have been some concerns about whether or not federal charges constitute an unconstitutional re-trying of Zimmerman, which could violate the constitutional protection against double jeopardy. The charges would not be for the same crime, however, centering on civil rights violations, not the killing itself.

Martin, Fulton, et. al. v. George Zimmerman

The case: In interviews on Sunday, the attorney for the Martin family (his father Tracy Martin and mother Sybrina Fulton) indicated that it was considering filing civil charges against Zimmerman, as MSNBC reports.

Such a case would echo another prominent racially tinged trial: the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in 1995. In the aftermath of that case, the families of those Simpson was accused of killing filed a civil suit, charging that Simpson caused his ex-wife Nicole Brown's wrongful death. CNN explains how that could be a roadmap for the Martin family.

Wrongful death is easier to prove than murder or manslaughter. A defendant can be held liable, even if he or she didn't intend to cause the victim's death, according to Florida law. Simple negligence is enough, if it results in death.

Did Zimmerman act negligently, when he exited his vehicle to pursue Martin on foot while carrying a gun—although a 911 operator told him not to?

The likely winner: Zimmerman, though it's not clear-cut.

There's a complicating factor in this case: Florida's "stand your ground" law. The much-discussed law allows those who feel that their lives are threatened to use deadly force in response. Though Zimmerman didn't formally invoke that statute during his trial, Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, has indicated that he would seek civil immunity for Zimmerman in that light. BuzzFeed spoke with an attorney in the state who explains why that might work.

“One of the things that ‘Stand Your Ground’ does, is it says that if you prove by a preponderance of the evidence, which is 51%, that you acted lawfully under ‘Stand Your Ground’ you can’t be prosecuted criminally sued civilly, and he’s just gotten a not guilty verdict,” [University of Miami criminal law professor Tamara Rice Lave] said. “And so it’s pretty clear he’s going to win that.”

Other experts BuzzFeed spoke with see more nuance in the application of the statute—but even so, the family would have an uphill battle. The only other witness to what happened that night is, of course, dead. Martin and Fulton have until next February to file a civil suit.

George Zimmerman v. NBC Universal, et. al.

The case: Last December, Zimmerman filed a civil lawsuit against the television network for defamation. In a news broadcast covering the Martin killing, the network edited together two segments of a call Zimmerman made to 911, making it appear that he had spontaneously suggested that Martin looked like "he's up to no good," because he was black. The racial identification was instead a response to a question from the 911 dispatcher.

While the criminal case proceeded, NBC asked for a stay on the case. In the aftermath of Saturday's verdict, Zimmerman's legal team suggested it would quickly return to the NBC case, the Washington Post reports. The paper communicated with James Beasley, an attorney for Zimmerman.

“We’re going to start in earnest asap, we just have to get the stay lifted which is a ministerial act,” says Beasley, a Philadelphia lawyer, via e-mail.

When asked how the not-guilty verdict affects the civil case against NBC News, Beasley responded, “This verdict of not guilty is just that, and shows that at least this jury didn’t believe that George was a racist, profiling, or anything that the press accused George of being. That probably doesn’t get you that much but it’s simply time for us to start the case and hold accountable anyone who was irresponsible in their journalism.”

The likely winner: Toss-up. It's not clear how the case will proceed, but it's unlikely that NBC News will be enthusiastic about spending a lot of time defending its journalism in a highly visible case. Making one possible, and perhaps likely, outcome an out-of-court settlement in which the network doesn't accept any fault.

If that happens, and if Zimmerman avoids suits from the government and Martin family, his legal record will be perfect, four-for-four. Perhaps law school isn't such a bad idea.

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