The Department of Justice will not pursue federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on Feb. 26, 2012.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Holder said that after a "comprehensive investigation," officials determined "that the high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met under the circumstances."
Prosecutors in civil rights cases are tasked with establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect, in this case Zimmerman, sought to "willfully deprive a person of a right or privilege protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States." That level of intent or premeditation can be painfully difficult to prove.
Investigators began their probe soon after the 2012 killing and continued internal discussions after Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges by a criminal jury in July 2013.
No surprise: This decision had been expected. Much like they have with the similar set of legal circumstances surrounding the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sources inside the Justice Department have been dropping hints for months that federal charges were not forthcoming, as ABC News notes:
Privately and publicly, Justice Department officials have been telegraphing all along that they were unlikely to file charges against Zimmerman. And in November 2013, Holder said the case against Zimmerman "in substantial part was resolved" with his acquittal months earlier.
Nevertheless, federal officials have insisted their civil-rights probe would be thorough and complete. Several months ago –- nearly two years into the Justice Department's investigation –- Holder said federal investigators were still seeking to interview certain witnesses "as a result of some recent developments."
The Washington Post reported similar leaks in October, suggesting that the decision had been made and it was only left for investigators "to 'dot their i's and cross their t's." The case remained open, but only "technically."
Attorney Mark O'Mara, who represented Zimmerman during his trial in Florida, told the Post that despite what officials said publicly, they had done little to advance the case since the initial investigation began in 2012.
"I was watching the whole case pretty closely for two years, and they didn't do anything except take those 40 statements [in the weeks and months after the killing]" O'Mara said. "To those who have seen civil rights investigations and civil rights violations, it looked as though the Department of Justice was just placating pressure that existed by suggesting there was an ongoing investigation."
The DOJ rejected that assertion in its statement today, saying that "Federal investigators also independently conducted 75 witness interviews and obtained and reviewed the contents of relevant electronic devices. The investigation included an examination of police reports and additional evidence that was generated related to encounters Zimmerman has had with law enforcement in Florida since the state trial acquittal."
Update, 3:33 p.m.: Martin's family released the following statement on the Trayvon Martin Foundation website:
On behalf of Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin, and the Trayvon Martin Foundation we would like to thank the Federal Government for an extensive and thorough investigation in the civil inquiry against George Zimmerman.
We would also like to thank the millions of people around the world who have supported us through prayer and vigilance. Your letters of love and encouragement at times helped mend our broken hearts and made the difference in finding solace in dark times.
Although we are disappointed in the Government findings, we remain poised to do everything in our power to make sure that senseless violence is eradicated and no parent or community has to go through what we've had to endure on a daily basis.
The Trayvon Martin Foundation is dedicated to finding solutions to social injustice, protecting our youth, and empowering those who demand justice and peace.
No one, regardless of race, religion, or gender should ever have to suffer being victimized because of ignorance, profiling, or bigotry.
We must never forget what happened to Trayvon Martin. His tragic death has triggered a resilience in people who refuse to be ignored, mistreated, or disrespected.
The issue is not just a police, black, or white problem. But an issue of respect, consideration, and love for each other who may look, act, or speak differently. It is time for us to soul search and decide what we want this world to look like for our children and make a change starting today.
Therefore, stand with us who believe we can make a positive change. Stand with us who love our country and demand peace for all people. Stand with us who want to find solutions to heal our land so we all can live in harmony.
Troy E. Wright - President