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Despite outrage, federal charges uncertain in Zimmerman case

Federal hate crimes laws require proof of racial motivation, legal experts say

Carol Cratty and Tom Cohen | 7/16/2013, 6 a.m.
Attorney General Eric Holder delivers remarks at the Delta Sigma Theta Social Action luncheon. Trayvon Martin and possible federal charges against George Zimmerman are among his topics of discussion. CNN

— CNN Legal analyst Paul Callan agreed Monday that federal prosecutors are "in sort of a tough spot." The hate crimes statue is generally applied to cases involving police officers or other government agents, Callan said, adding that using it in a case involving a lone private citizen is "very, very rare and I think in this case, it's going to be very hard to prove."

A hate crimes violation in a killing carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Those seeking federal charges say the killing was racially motivated, arguing that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, targeted Martin for special scrutiny because the teenager was an African-American. Regardless of how the shooting occurred, they say, the fight occurred because of Martin's race.

"The most fundamental of civil rights --- the right to life --- was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin," says the petition on the NAACP website endorsed by more than 300,000 people so far, according to spokesman Derek Turner.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, the Ohio Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said racial profiling like what Zimmerman did to Martin "continues to make communities of innocent individuals fear a justice system designed to protect them."

"Men and women wonder if merely walking or driving justifies being followed, stopped, or questioned," Fudge said in a statement Monday. "This practice and the presumption of guilt so often associated with people of color must come to an end."

A crush of petitioners crashed the NAACP website during the night, causing the group to set up a parallel petition drive on the liberal MoveOn.org website, Turner told CNN on Monday.

Such political pressure evokes memories of the Rodney King case in 1991, when videotape of white Los Angeles police officers clubbing an African-American man after a car chase prompted race-tinged national furor.

When a criminal court failed to convict the officers of police brutality, riots ensued in Los Angeles over alleged racial discrimination.

The Justice Department then filed a civil rights suit against the officers, alleging "deprivations of federal rights under color of law," and two were convicted in 1993. A court sentenced them to 30 months in federal prison.

Weinstein said the Justice Department can't file similar charges against Zimmerman because he is a private citizen instead of a police officer or government official of any kind.

"There are no other relevant sections under which to prosecute him," Weinstein told CNN in an e-mail, citing the hate crimes statute that covers "offenses involving actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin."

However, Martin's family can still file a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Zimmerman to seek penalties and damages. Such a legal move carries no criminal penalty or prison time.

That is the most likely next step, defense attorney Midwin Charles told CNN on Monday.

CNN's Kevin Liptak, Ben Brumfield and Josh Levs contributed to this report.

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