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Trayvon Martin case: US could bring hate crime charge against George Zimmerman

The Justice Department could bring a hate crime charge against George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin if there is sufficient evidence the slaying was motivated by racial bias.

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Donna Coley-Trice, joins a rally demanding justice for Trayvon Martin in Freedom Plaza, Washington, Saturday. Martin, an unarmed young black teen, was fatally shot by a volunteer neighborhood watchman.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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The U.S. Justice Department could bring a hate crime charge against the shooter in the killing of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin if there is sufficient evidence the slaying was motivated by racial bias and not simply a fight that spiraled out of control, legal experts and former prosecutors say.

So far, only one such clue has surfaced publicly against 28-year-old George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who fatally shot the 17-year-old Martin on Feb. 26 in the central Florida town of Sanford. On one of his 911 calls to police that night, Zimmerman muttered something under his breath that some listeners say sounds like a racial slur. Zimmerman's father is white, and his mother is Hispanic.

"It sounds pretty obvious to me," said Donald Tibbs, a Drexel University law professor who has closely studied race, civil rights and criminal procedure. "If that was a racial epithet that preceded the attack on Trayvon Martin, we definitely have a hate crime."

Others, however, say the recording is not clear enough to determine what Zimmerman actually said. And many experts say more evidence would be needed that he harbored racial prejudice against black people and went after Martin for that reason alone. There had previously been burglaries in the complex committed by young black males, possibly heightening Zimmerman's suspicions when he spotted Martin.

"They are going to have to show he was specifically targeting this individual based on his race, creed, color, et cetera," said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. "Not that he was chasing somebody down and got in a confrontation that may or may not have been based on that."

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