Ahead of the third anniversary of the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, the U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday that it found “insufficient evidence” to bring criminal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman previously cleared by a Florida court in the killing.
A jury acquitted Zimmerman, now 31, in July 2013 of murder charges, after which a federal investigation was launched to determine whether he had violated any civil rights statutes in his deadly confrontation with Martin, 17, in Sanford, Florida.
Martin’s death provoked national protests amid questions over the role race played in the incident and the position of black Americans in the criminal justice system. It also shined a light on controversial self-defense laws known as “stand your ground,” under which individuals are shielded from prosecution if they use lethal force against perceived threats and are not obligated to retreat from confrontations.
In a statement Tuesday, the Department of Justice said that after a “comprehensive investigation,” it was deemed that the “high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met.”
Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said, “Although the department has determined that this matter cannot be prosecuted federally, it is important to remember that this incident resulted in the tragic loss of a teenager’s life.” She added, “Our decision not to pursue federal charges does not condone the shooting that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and is based solely on the high legal standard applicable to these cases.”
Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney, said that while decision was anticipated, it was still a “bitter pill to swallow,” according to the Associated Press. “What they told his family and I was that because Trayvon wasn't able to tell us his version of events, there was a lack of evidence to bring the charges. That's the tragedy.”
Critics of the Florida court’s acquittal contend that Zimmerman instigated the fatal encounter and that Martin’s race played a role in how authorities handled the charges and trial of Zimmerman.
The fateful night began when Zimmerman called the police after he claimed Martin was acting suspiciously by walking in a neighborhood where he was not recognized. Against the wishes of the police dispatcher, Zimmerman approached Martin, who was in town visiting his father’s fiancee in the gated community Zimmerman was patrolling. In the ensuing confrontation, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, claiming self-defense after the teenager allegedly punched him.
But the Florida court determined that there was not enough evidence to charge Zimmerman with first-degree murder. He was charged with — and later acquitted of — second-degree murder.
Alongside reopening a national discussion on race, the case placed national scrutiny on Florida’s laws, which give great leeway to individuals claiming self-defense in shooting cases.
Speaking Tuesday about the impact of the case, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The death of Trayvon Martin was a devastating tragedy. It shook an entire community, drew the attention of millions across the nation and sparked a painful but necessary dialogue throughout the country.”
He added, “This young man’s premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface. We as a nation must take concrete steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.”
Since his acquittal, Zimmerman has had a number of police altercations.
In November 2013, police charged him with domestic violence after he allegedly threatened his girlfriend with a shotgun and destroyed her possessions. Last month, police arrested him and charged him with assault against an ex-girlfriend. In all cases, the charges were later dropped.