There are three ways of looking at whether Zimmerman should be prosecuted in federal court
In the aftermath of the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in a Florida court, a question looms as to whether he’ll now face federal charges of violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights.
It seems to me that there are three views on that matter — and two of them are fundamentally wrong.
The first is the purely vengeful view of people who simply want Zimmerman to be punished under law — any law — for having killed Martin. The problem with that attitude is that it presumes, perhaps rashly, that Zimmerman did, in fact, violate Martin’s rights.
But the matter is not that simple. The burden of proof is considerable. It would have to be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was motivated by racial bias. If that were actually the case, why couldn’t the prosecutors in the Florida trial convince the jurors of it? Why did they not even emphasize that issue? Why did they argue at one point that race was not an issue in this case?
The second view is that a federal prosecution would amount to double jeopardy. But that, too, is a complicated matter.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says no person should “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” But the Supreme Court has ruled that sometimes the same conduct — the killing of a person, for example — may violate two different statutes.
The court has held that “where the same act or transaction constitutes a violation of two distinct statutory provisions, the test to be applied to determine whether there are two offenses or only one, is whether each provision requires proof of an additional fact which the other does not.”
That distinction may — or may not — apply in the Zimmerman-Martin case. But I know of no cases in which prosecutions under the federal civil rights statute have been overturned on Fifth Amendment grounds.
Which brings us to the third view — and the only valid view, as I see it — of whether Zimmerman should be prosecuted in federal court: Do federal prosecutors — or does a federal grand jury — see good evidence that Zimmerman violated a federal statute, namely the civil rights statute?
If there is good evidence of such, it would be a miscarriage of justice to not prosecute Zimmerman in federal court.
But that’s a very big if.