George Zimmerman Civil Suit: A Civil Rights Case Won't Work

The news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in his trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has elicited strong opinions from people on both sides of the case. Supporters of the Martin family believe that the result of this criminal case represents a gross injustice, and are now pursuing a federal civil case against George Zimmerman, but this is not their best option.

The criminal case, to many people, failed Trayvon Martin and his family. In one of the many opinion pieces that has been written since the verdict came out, the a writer at Thought Catalog noted that in this country, “we have a legal system, but not necessarily a justice system; the semantics matter.” The semantics do indeed matter, and the distinction is an important one. Due to a number of factors, not the least of which include political implications, corruption, and just human fallibility, the legal system in this country is not perfect, and does not always deliver absolute justice.  Indeed, what exactly constitutes absolute justice, in this case or any, is hard to define in itself. But what is clear is this: If the Martin family or anyone representing them feels they have been unjustly treated, they have the right to pursue every legal option available to them. For this reason, their decision to pursue a civil case against Zimmerman is in order.

The critical matter, however, is what type of civil suit will be filed. Currently, the NAACP, one of the nation’s oldest civil-rights groups, is pushing to file a federal civil rights suit with the U.S. Department of Justice against Zimmerman, but the Martin family would have a better chance of winning if they filed a private wrongful-death suit in the state of Florida. There are several differences between the two, but the long and short of it is this:

A civil-rights suit is messy. In order to win that, the government would have to prove that Zimmerman infringed upon Martin’s civil rights. They would have to prove, basically, that Zimmerman was obviously and unashamedly racist, something that is very difficult to do. And the fact that he was acquitted in the criminal case makes their task that much more difficult.

A wrongful death suit, on the other hand, demands a much lower burden of proof. In this case, the plaintiffs would only have to prove through “a preponderance of the evidence” (the probability that the evidence presented is true) that Zimmerman acted irresponsibly, and that this irresponsibility led to Martin’s death. Additionally, the criminal case would have no bearing on this case according to Florida law. All in all, the wrongful death suit seems like a much surer bet for the Martin family, should they chose to pursue it.

One thing that may not be immediately apparent is why this whole issue matters so much. Why are people so adamant that Zimmerman pay in some way for what he did? Ultimately, it comes down again to this issue of legality versus justice.

Technically, everything that went on in the criminal case happened in accordance with the law. Both the prosecution and defense presented their cases, and ultimately a jury was not able to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt that in the moments of the struggle between Zimmerman and Martin, that Zimmerman acted out of anything other than self defense, so they acquitted him. The legal process was enacted, and a verdict was reached.

But when one considers the entire situation, the apparent injustice of the verdict surfaces. It doesn’t seem right that a man should be able to profile an innocent, unarmed civilian, go out of his way to confront this civilian, engage in a conflict with this civilian, ultimately killing him, and ultimately walk away a free man. This situation, to many people, reeks of injustice.

So that is why the parents of Trayvon Martin are seeking justice for their son through the civil case. “They deeply want a sense of justice. They deeply don't want their son's death to be in vain," said Benjamin Crump, the family’s lawyer, during an ABC interview.

No court case, civil or criminal, will bring Trayvon Martin back. But if this country’s legal system can bring even a shred of justice to his family, who has lost so much, then it will have served the purpose it was intended for. 

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Camille Squires

is a student at Georgetown University, with interests in international politics, international development, social justice issues, and critical race theory.

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