On Tuesday, the Department of Justice notified Trayvon Martin’s family that it will not charge George Zimmerman under federal civil rights law, according to ABC News. Zimmerman has already been acquitted of state-level murder and manslaughter charges by a Florida jury. Tuesday’s announcement made official what many have suspected for nearly two years: Zimmerman will not be imprisoned for shooting and killing Martin.
As I explained after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, it is nearly impossible to win a federal civil rights case against a person who harms or kills a citizen—especially when he does so in the name of law enforcement. That’s because, in 1945, the Supreme Court essentially rewrote a Reconstruction-era statute designed to protect black people, inadvertently stacking the deck against victims. Under the current law, the government would be required to prove that Zimmerman intended to deprive Martin of his constitutional right to life and liberty when he pulled the trigger.
At most, the government could probably prove that Zimmerman acted rashly or irresponsibly. But with such little evidence to go on, prosecutors would likely be unable to prove that Zimmerman fired his gun with the explicit intent to deprive Martin of life without due process of law. Without this showing of “willfulness,” as the Supreme Court phrased it, Zimmerman cannot be convicted under federal law. (The Justice Department will also decline to press federal charges against Wilson in the Ferguson shooting due to similar concerns, though officials have not yet formally announced their decision.)
The Martin family may, of course, still pursue civil charges, like suing Zimmerman for wrongfully killing their son. In the meantime, Zimmerman continues to struggle with the law: In January he was arrested on suspision of assaulting his girlfriend, though that case has since been dropped.*
*Correction, Feb. 24, 2015: This post originally misstated that George Zimmerman is being prosecuted for the aggravated assault of his girlfriend. That case has been dropped.