As Feds Review Martin Case, NAACP Seeks DOJ Action and Targets State ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

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This article originally appeared in The Nation.

Tabatha Holley
Tabatha Holley, 19, of Dawson, Ga., chants as demonstrators march in protest as a police cruiser follows at right the day after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman with shock, anguish and a call to action.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is petitioning the United States Department of Justice to seek justice for slain teenager Trayvon Martin by filing civil rights charges against Zimmerman.

On Sunday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced that the case was under review. “Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction,’’ read a department statement that added that the review would determine ‘‘whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.’’

The formal language describes a first step that, while it is encouraging for civil rights organizations, does not assure that a federal case will be initiated.

But the NAACP and other groups are arguing that there are clear grounds for an intervention by the department.

In a message posted on the group’s website and circulated nationally within hours of the announcement of the verdict, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, declared, “We are not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.”

As part of the NAACP campaign to get the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman, Jealous urged Americans to sign a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder that reads,

The Department of Justice has closely monitored the State of Florida’s prosecution of the case against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder since it began. Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act.

The most fundamental of civil rights — the right to life — was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.

Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.

Within three hours of the online posting of the petition late Saturday evening, more than 350,000 Americans had signed it. The response was so intense that the group’s website crashed Sunday morning. But the #JusticeForTrayvon petition drive continued at the petition site and a refreshed NAACP site.

Other civil rights groups echoed the demand for Justice Department action, with the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore telling reporters, “We will be calling on the federal government to file criminal charges on the basis of civil rights violations. This was done immediately after the Rodney King verdict, and should be done if justice is not rendered by the Florida courts.”

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president Barbara Arnwine said that while the verdict “represents a tragic miscarriage of justice,” she believes “there is still the potential for justice to be served through a civil suit brought about by Trayvon Martin’s surviving family members, and also through civil rights charges being brought against Mr. Zimmerman by the Department of Justice.”

In addition to pressing for action at the federal level, the NAACP and other groups were turning attention to state capitols in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal.

Jealous, who said civil rights supporters were “outraged and heartbroken” by the jury verdict, coupled his announcement of the petition with a call for the outlawing of racial profiling and a renewed commitment to “fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state.”

Florida passed its “stand your ground” law in 2005. Since then, at the behest of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, variations on the legislation — which allows individuals who say they believe themselves to be in imminent danger to use deadly force — have been enacted by state legislatures across the country. After the killing of Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, as media outlets in Florida and nationally have reported, “Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”

Zimmerman, who faced charges only after a national outcry forced a review of the case, did not mount a specific “stand your ground” defense. But the issue remained a bone of contention before and during his trial; notably, the jury heard from a witness who recalled teaching about Florida’s law in a college course that the defendant completed in 2010. And when  jury instructions were made in the case, the judge said: “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Brendan Fischer, a lawyer with the Center for Media and Democracy, notes that: “This language is nearly identical to that in the Florida Stand Your Ground law and the ALEC “model” legislation. We cannot know if the outcome would have been different had the six jurors been instructed differently — but we do know that Stand Your Ground played a role in the case, even after Zimmerman’s arrest.”

The sustained outcry over the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting of Martin appears to have led the NRA and ALEC to halt advocacy on behalf of “stand your ground” laws. But the laws continue to influence criminal justice nationwide, as the Center for Media and Democracy has documented.

The NAACP, the Urban League, Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way and were among many groups that pressed ALEC on the “stand your ground” issue in 2012. Several of these same groups have taken the next step and are urging legislators to strike the laws from state statute books.

“Florida’s dangerous ‘Shoot First’ law allowed Trayvon’s killer to walk free without charges for more than a month. Shoot First legalizes vigilante homicide, has demonstrated racial bias in its application, and has led to an increase in gun-related deaths in the more than two dozen states where it has been passed into law,” argues Color of Change, as part of its campaign to strike down “stand your ground” laws. “These laws give individual gun owners a greater right to shoot and kill than the rules of engagement for our military during times of war grant to soldiers in war zones. ‘Shoot First’ must be repealed now to protect families and communities and prevent senseless deaths.”

Referencing a Texas A&M University study that revealed how “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws do not deter crime but have been linked to increased rates of homicide, Jealous has said that “stand-your-ground legislation does more harm than good.”

“Too often these laws provide cover for vigilantes and hate groups who choose to take the law into their own hand,” argued the NAACP president in 2012. “They have led to an increase in homicides, and people of color seem to always get caught in the crossfire.”

John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy.
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  • Cynthia Davis

    I don’t know what the age, color or sex of his victims were but I had a self avowed “redneck” tenant that moved here from Florida years ago that bragged about “getting off” without charges because of these laws when he had a falling out with his drug buddies. The most frightening part of what he told me was that the trick was to make sure they were DEAD so they could not testify against you, try to make sure any witnesses were on your side or dead and the rest was just arranging the scene to make it look like “self defense”.
    Those laws have made Florida a paradise for psychopath murderers.

  • roller coaster

    its nice to be politically correct but if some guy is beating your head into the concrete and you have a weapon youd probably use it .

  • Are You Kidding Me

    Certain parts of the Media and commenter’s there are waging a Full-scale character and personality assassination against Trayvon Martin—they’re building for us an IDENTITY of Trayvon that implies criminality juvenile delinquency and the all around characteristics of a Troublemaker INFERRING Trayvon provoked and deserved his Death. PLANTED in your head the same way dissenting Jurors were PLANTED in the Jury. That Jury was SPLIT on 2nd Degree Murder for more than 15 HOURS and than the PLANT took over & advantage of each one’s mental fatigue and convinced them OFF 2nd Degree Murder! We KNOW this because late Saturday The Jury asked the Judge to explain Manslaughter, 30 min later the Acquittal. It only takes ONE good dissenting Juror to confuse and undermine the thinking of all the rest. This Jury had more than one. And, We cannot ignore George Zimmerman’s Father is a Judge—it Mattered! It mattered in how that crime scene was treated and it mattered in the bruises Zimmerman sustained made to look like his head & face was beaten. If his head was slammed repeatedly on concrete like he said, there’d be concussion and related SWELL wounding consistent with getting one’s head/face slammed & pummeled repeatedly into concrete. WE DON’T BELIEVE THAT STORY. It’s true, We can’t change the Verdict. It’s also true, the Zimmerman PR Team can do Shows/Interviews/Run Polls—NONE of THAT changes the 3 irrefutable Facts that MATTER: 1. A Man with a Gun CHOSE to follow an Unarmed Teenager who’d done NOTHING wrong 2. The Man with the Gun CHOSE to initiate a Confrontation with the Teenager even after He was advised not to by the 911 Operator she said Mr. Zimmerman STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE, Let the Police Handle it 3. As a Result of the Confrontation the Man with the Gun shot the Teenager to death. Last, Just like the Juror who said she thinks it’s George Zimmerman’s Voice on the Tape, ALL the Mothers ALL the Fathers & the Media who Listened to the Tape and want Justice for Trayvon WE HEARD a Boy’s Voice Trayvon’s Voice screaming for Help.

  • Rachel

    Not if “some guy” is a minor who you’ve been stalking … with a gun

  • Rachel

    But apparently also not acceptable if it’s your ex who you have a restraining order for who has violated said order after he’s been violent to you in the past. Even if you don’t kill him.

  • Anonymous

    We will never know what lead up to the physical confrontation between the two men but an eye witness testified that Martin appeared to be on top of Zimmerman striking him, in the head/upper body, several times. I am not sure what Zimmerman could have done to provoke such a violent reaction but, like it or not, the fact that he pinned Zimmerman to the ground and beat him and with no other evidence to the contrary, made this shooting a clear case of self-defense. I think early on the press fanned the flames to create a fire storm making this story appear to be more than it actually was.
    Still it was sad the Young man died.

  • Anonymous

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  • Dale Hiway Settle

    It would seem to me that “Stand your ground” laws were applied to Zimmerman whereas Trayvon was held to the old expectations of avoiding confrontation- if Zimmerman was following Martin with hostile intent, and that is admitted, then why doesn’t Trayvon have the benefit of the newer interpretations of obligatory avoidance?

    Seems to be that Stand your ground laws are subjective… based on… what?

  • Anonymous

    In Fla. it is based on someone’s fear of bodily harm. I don’t recall Martin ever admitting that he had hostile intent. Trayvon was on top of Zimmerman denying him the ability to retreat. One can only speculate on what went on between the two but an eye witness testified that Trayvon was on top of Zimmerman and was striking him about the head/upper body. This denied Zimmerman his path of escape and fearing serious bodily harm, this in itsself justifies Zimmernan’s use of deadly force.
    Still it was sad the kid died.

  • redleg

    Here’s the best tip I can give you. Zimmerman was in danger of being beaten to death. A younger, stronger person was on top of him and was pounding his head into the concrete sidewalk. Zimmerman had broken no law, rule or order. He quite properly defended himself and his young attacker died. He was, in spite of overwhelming media and political condemnation, and against all odds, properly found not guilty. And now an unsatisfied federal government is seeking to further punish him by soliciting “evidence” of his racial guilt. I spent almost 30 years as a police officer and was taught by many agencies, including the federal government, that the rule of law took precedence over the rule of man. The rule of law has spoken. Yes, it’s a shame that a 17 year old young man is dead. The fault was his in attacking someone who was breaking no law and not threatening him. Punishing an innocent man will not fix that.

    Let it be. The black community will be outraged. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  • Anonymous

    Moyer inaccurately reported tonight that Zimmerman stalked Trayvon. This is untrue and unworthy of someone of Mr. Moyers caliber.

  • Anonymous

    There is no evidence that Zimmerman initiated a confrontation with Trayvon. Unfortunately, Trayvon opted to use physical force rather than attempting to diffuse the situation.

  • Anonymous

    There is no evidence that Zimmerman stalked Trayvon.

  • Anonymous

    There has been no admission of hostile intent. Unfortunately, rather than any attempt to diffuse the situation, Trayvon chose to resort to violence.

  • Roger

    Gotta agree with redleg here. This isn’t the case to make your stand, people. Try the case of the elderly man who suspected his neighbor’s son of stealing from him and shot him dead on the street instead of calling police. But we still have to get to the underlying problem: African-Americans are in deep denial that many of their teens ARE IN FACT undercover thugs, dealing drugs and guns and having no problem with breaking into other people’s homes to rob them blind! I’m not a racist, I’m a realist, and if you want to save more of these kids, you’ll wake up and break out the belt once in awhile when it’s necessary to beat the law and the fear of GOD into them. Amen

  • Anonymous

    Your conjectures do not win any points here. They may, in fact, be true. But in court, the facts speak louder than the conjectures. Just how would you change the law without trampling over the concepts of beyond a shadow of a doubt, double jeopardy, right of self-defence and protection of property and not the least the verdict of acquittal from a jury. Your stance would flaunt the rights of the accused. This, I believe, would actually create more problems for all of us.