After a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin on Saturday, President Obama appealed for calm. “I know this case has elicited strong passions,” he said. “And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”
Although Obama wants us to respect the jury’s verdict, that does not necessarily mean he will. His Justice Department is mulling the possibility of prosecuting Zimmerman again, most likely based on the federal hate crime statute. That would be wrong for at least four reasons.
There is very little evidence that Zimmerman was motivated by bigotry. Zimmerman, a Hispanic with an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather, grew up in a racially mixed household, started a business with a black friend and mentored African-American children. Last year the FBI interviewed dozens of his neighbors and co-workers, none of whom described him as racist.
The evidence that race was a factor in Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin was so thin that the judge did not allow the prosecution to mention it during his trial. Yet to convict Zimmerman of a hate crime in connection with Martin’s death, federal prosecutors would have to show not just that the teenager’s skin color was one of the things that made him seem suspicious to Zimmerman but that Zimmerman shot him “because of” his race.
The government should not punish people for their beliefs. If Zimmerman had been known to espouse racist views, or if he had uttered racist epithets during his encounter with Martin, that evidence would be used to prosecute him for a federal crime that carries a life sentence. A man with different opinions would not face that risk. To make criminal punishment hinge on a defendant’s expression of politically disfavored ideas violates freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.
Federalism. The federal hate crime law allows the Justice Department to prosecute any violent offense allegedly motivated by bigotry when the defendant “interferes with commercial or other economic activity,” “otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce” or even uses a “weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce.” These ridiculously broad excuses for federal intervention make a mockery of the balance between state and national powers established by the Constitution.
Double jeopardy. Although the Supreme Court has held that serial prosecutions for the same actions do not violate the Fifth Amendment as long as they are undertaken by different levels of government, the “dual sovereignty” doctrine should not blind us to what is really going on here. A state jury acquitted Zimmerman based on his claim of self-defense. If the Justice Department decides to prosecute him, it will be saying that the state jury got it wrong.
Attorney General Eric Holder already has implied as much, calling the shooting “unnecessary” in a speech on Monday. While Holder might have meant that Martin would still be alive if Zimmerman had not deemed him suspicious and started to follow him, the comment can also be read as a rejection of Zimmerman’s defense, suggesting Holder is prejudging a Justice Department investigation that could lead to a prosecution aimed, in essence, at overturning Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Although it was predictable that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would demand federal charges against Zimmerman after he was acquitted, it is sad to see the American Civil Liberties Union, which should be standing up for the rights of unpopular defendants, jumping on this bandwagon. In a statement issued on Sunday, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, “It is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime.”
In other words, the ACLU is calling for a federal inquiry into an acquitted defendant’s beliefs with the aim of justifying a second prosecution for the same crime. What part of that says “civil liberties” to you?