Trayvon Martin Investigation May Reflect Trend of More Aggressive Tack on Hate Crime
The U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of an unarmed black teenager’s shooting death in Florida may reflect a trend of more aggressive hate crime prosecutions during the Obama administration.
The department has said it opened a civil rights probe into the Feb. 26 slaying of Trayvon Martin, 17. A neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, told police that he shot Martin in self defense. Authorities are looking into whether Zimmerman used a racial slur before pulling the trigger, the Washington Post reported.
There were 66 federal hate crime prosecutions in the first three years of President Barack Obama’s administration compared to 49 during the last three years of the Bush administration. The cases include physical assaults, cross burnings and attacks on houses of worship that were motivated by reasons such as race and ethnicity, prosecutors said.
“This administration has proven it’s very willing to pursue the most challenging cases even where they would not be criticized for walking away,” said David Douglass, a former Justice Department lawyer in the unit that handles hate crime cases in the early 1990s.
The Justice Department won’t comment on whether it’s pursuing the shooting in Sanford, Florida as a hate crime, said Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general who oversees the department’s civil rights division, in a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We’re in the fact-gathering stage,” Perez said.
Douglass and other former Justice Department lawyers said that’s the department’s likely focus. Yesterday, 14 Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking that he “explore the applicability” of the hate-crime statute and other federal laws. No charges have been filed against Zimmerman.
Finding evidence that proves race was a motivating factor may be difficult in the Florida case, said Douglass, a lawyer at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP in Washington.
Speaking at the White House today, Obama said it’s “imperative” that “every aspect” of the case be investigated to determine what happened.