Tuesday 16 January 2018

Man who shot dead unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin 'will not face federal charges'

George Zimmerman (Seminole County Public Affairs/AP)
George Zimmerman (Seminole County Public Affairs/AP)

George Zimmerman, the former neighbourhood watch volunteer who shot dead unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in a 2012 confrontation, will not face federal charges, the US Justice Department has said.

The decision resolves a case that focused public attention on US self-defence gun laws and became a flashpoint in the national conversation about race two years before the Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting of a black man.

Mr Zimmerman, 31, who identifies himself as Hispanic, maintained that he acted in self-defence when he shot 17-year-old Trayvon during a confrontation inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, just outside Orlando.

Once Mr Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder by a state jury in July 2013, Trayvon's family turned to the federal investigation in final hopes that he would be held accountable for the shooting.

That probe focused on whether the killing could be charged as a federal hate crime and on whether Mr Zimmerman willfully deprived Trayvon of his civil rights, a difficult legal standard to meet.

But Justice Department officials said they ultimately determined there was insufficient evidence to prove Mr Zimmerman killed the teenager on account of his race.

"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," Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department's top civil rights official, said in a statement announcing the decision.

Trayvon's parents were too distraught after their meeting with Justice Department officials in Miami to speak to reporters, their lawyer Ben Crump said. He called the decision a "bitter pill to swallow" even though it was expected.

"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," Mr Crump said.

Mr Zimmerman's lawyer Don West was on a flight and could not immediately comment on the decision. A call to Mr Zimmerman's mobile phone went directly to voicemail.

The February 2012 confrontation began after Mr Zimmerman observed Trayvon while driving in his neighbourhood. He called police, got out of his car and approached the teenager, who was returning from a store while visiting his father and his father's fiancee at the same complex where Mr Zimmerman lived.

Mr Zimmerman did not give evidence at his trial, but he told investigators that he feared for his life as Trayvon straddled and punched him during the fight.

The Justice Department's decision was not surprising because there was no direct or circumstantial evidence that Mr Zimmerman's actions were motivated by race, said Tamara Rice Lave, a professor at the University of Miami's School of Law.

Black community leaders in Sanford said they were not surprised by the decision.

"I was expecting this to happen," said Turner Clayton, a former local leader of the NAACP, a leading civil rights group.

The decision to not prosecute Mr Zimmerman comes even though US attorney general Eric Holder has made civil rights a cornerstone of his tenure. The Justice Department is moving to resolve a separate high-profile civil rights case - the August shooting by a Ferguson police officer of unarmed black man Michael Brown, 18.

Mr Holder has indicated that he plans to announce a decision in that case, which prompted weeks of protests, before he leaves the Justice Department in the coming weeks. In the Ferguson case, the Justice Department has been investigating whether the officer deprived Mr Brown of his civil rights by using excessive force.

Press Association

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