HuffPost, March 20, 2012
The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have opened an investigation into the “facts and circumstances” surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed last month by a neighborhood watch captain in an Orlando suburb.
The department will “conduct a thorough and independent review of all evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation,” according to a statement late Monday.
The announcement comes as the drumbeat around the case continues to grow, becoming national news and shining a brighter media spotlight on the city of Sanford, where the killing occurred, and its police department, which handled the initial investigation that so far has failed to bring charges.
Martin, 17, was shot to death on Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain who told police he fired in self-defense. Zimmerman confronted the teen after calling 911 and reporting Martin as a “suspicious person.” Though a dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow the teen, Zimmerman confronted him nevertheless, police said. Martin died from a gunshot wound to the chest.
Police questioned Zimmerman and released him without charges. Zimmerman was licensed to carry a gun and police said they found no evidence to contradict his self-defense claim.
The Justice Department statement said it also would provide assistance to Florida officials. The Seminole County State Attorney’s Office recently took over the case from local police. The state attorney will soon decide whether to bring charges against Zimmerman.
With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something the law forbids — the highest level of intent in criminal law, the Justice Department statement said.
Earlier on Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, calling on the agency to “fully investigate” Martin’s death.
“The circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin have caused significant concerns within the Sanford community and the state,” Scott wrote to Bailey. “I understand an investigation was initiated by the Sanford Police Department and referred to the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office. I believe it is appropriate that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement provide any assistance necessary to fully investigate this matter.”
Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement Monday afternoon that he was “outraged by the way in which this case has been handled by the Sanford Police Department in Florida.”
“Those who are meant to protect us and our children have blatantly turned their backs on fairness and justice,” Cleaver (D-Mo.) said. “We urge the Department of Justice to immediately and thoroughly investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin as a hate crime. This case compromises the integrity of our legal system and sets a horrific precedent of vigilante justice.”
The White House also commented on the Martin case during a press briefing. “The White House is aware of the incident,” press secretary Jay Carney said. He added: “We’re not going to wade into a local law enforcement matter.”
Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) called for Justice Department intervention, saying she doesn’t “have the same kind of confidence in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the governor’s office or the State Attorney’s Office.”
She added: “I’m not law enforcement, but I absolutely think [Zimmerman] should have been arrested.”
Written by Trymaine Lee.
Trymaine Lee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked at publications in Philadelphia, Trenton, New Orleans and New York City. He is a senior reporter at the Huffington Post covering national stories that impact the black community.