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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.
“My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin,” Obama said. “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And, you know, I think they are right to expect that all of us, as Americans, are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
The Obama administration has been aided by a 2009 law that expanded offenses that can be prosecuted in federal court as hate crimes to include those based on gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. The law also eliminated a requirement that victims of some categories of hate crimes be engaged in federally protected activities, such as attending a public school, at the time they’re attacked.
The Justice Department has brought eight cases under the 2009 law beginning with an indictment the following year for an assault in New Mexico on a developmentally disabled American Indian who was branded with a swastika.
The expanded hate crime definition makes comparisons between the Bush and Obama records misleading, said Robert Driscoll, who served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the civil rights division from 2001 to 2003. “You can only enforce the laws you have,” Driscoll said.
Prosecuting all bias crimes was a “priority” in the Bush administration, which emphasized attacks on Arab and Muslim Americans after Sept. 11, said Driscoll, a lawyer at Alston & Bird LLP in Washington.
Perez said in a 2009 speech that he was “shocked” by the George W. Bush administration’s record on hate crime prosecutions.
The rise in hate crime prosecutions is part of an “across the board” increase in civil rights enforcement by the Obama administration, said Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
The Justice Department announced it opened an investigation into the “facts and circumstances” of Martin’s death in a March 19 statement.
Martin’s parents and their lawyer met yesterday in Florida with Justice Department officials on the same day Perez visited Mississippi to announce the first prosecution under the 2009 hate crimes law for an attack resulting in death.
Three individuals pleaded guilty yesterday for their role in a 2011 attack on a black man who died after being beaten and run over in a Jackson, Mississippi, motel parking lot, according to a Justice Department statement.
The Florida shooting occurred when Martin was walking through a residential neighborhood after buying iced tea and Skittles at a convenience store, said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Martin family, at a March 20 news conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Zimmerman was identified as a white male in a Feb. 27 Sanford Police Department report posted on the city’s website. His father, Robert Zimmerman described him as “a Spanish speaking minority” in a March 15 letter to the Orlando Sentinel.
“He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever,” Robert Zimmerman said in the letter.
The Sanford police department investigated the case and forwarded its findings to local prosecutors. Police didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Zimmerman at the scene, said City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr., in a statement.
The 2009 law makes the Martin case “potentially prosecutable where it might not have been before,” under federal law, said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who served in the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2009 to 2011.
Martin was not necessarily engaged in a protected activity at the time he was walking on the street in a private, gated community, Bagenstos said.
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