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US rights case vs. Zimmerman would be complex

Analysts express skepticism; juror discusses verdict

US Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at a Delta Sigma Theta sorority convention about the need for a dialogue on race.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

US Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at a Delta Sigma Theta sorority convention about the need for a dialogue on race.

WASHINGTON — Calls for the Justice Department to look into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin were made as soon as George Zimmerman was acquitted of state charges in a Florida courtroom, but it may be even tougher to mount a federal case against Zimmerman.

The department has said it is reviewing evidence to determine whether criminal civil rights charges are warranted, but legal analysts see major barriers to a federal prosecution — including the burden of proving that Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch leader, was motivated by racial animosity.

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Analysts also say Justice officials would probably be saddled with some of the same challenges that complicated the state’s unsuccessful case.

‘‘There are several factual and legal hurdles that federal prosecutors would have to overcome,’’ said Alan Vinegrad, the former US attorney in the Eastern District of New York. “They would have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr. Zimmerman attacked Mr. Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street.’’

The department opened an investigation into Martin’s death last year but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed. It said in a statement Sunday that the criminal section of its civil rights division, the FBI, and federal prosecutors in Florida are continuing to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, plus evidence and testimony from the state trial.

Meanwhile, a juror Monday night became the first to publicly discuss how the six women reached a verdict.

“I think his heart was in the right place,” the juror said of Zimmerman’s eagerness to try to protect the neighborhood. “It just went terribly wrong.”

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She said Zimmerman was guilty of nothing more than “bad judgment.”

The juror spoke anonymously, telling Anderson Cooper of CNN that she believed Zimmerman’s account that Martin attacked him. Fearing for his life, Zimmerman had no choice but to shoot the teenager, the juror said. Martin was unarmed.

Juror B37, the number she was assigned for the trial, also said that when the jurors began to deliberate, they were evenly divided between guilt and innocence. One voted for second-degree murder and two voted for manslaughter. B37 said she was one of three who voted not guilty.

“There was a couple of them in there that wanted to find him guilty of something,” the juror said.

But after sorting through the evidence, the three jurors changed their minds. Second-degree murder was discarded first. Then, after much confusion over jury instructions, manslaughter was set aside, she said.

Unlike the swirl of anger and passion over the role of race outside the courtroom, race did not come up during 16 hours and 20 minutes of deliberations, she said. No juror, she said, viewed the case through the prism of race.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday called the killing of Martin a ‘‘tragic, unnecessary shooting,’’ and said the department will follow ‘‘the facts and the law’’ as it reviews evidence to see whether federal criminal charges are warranted.

In his first comments since the acquittal of Zimmerman, the attorney general said the death provides an opportunity for the nation to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally charged issues.

The attorney general’s characterization of the killing drew strong applause from the audience at the national convention of the Delta Sigma Theta, the nation’s largest African-American sorority, which is meeting in Washington.

‘‘I hope that we will approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon’s parents, have demonstrated throughout the last year — and especially over the past few days,’’ said Holder. ‘‘They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure — and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive.’’

The NAACP and other groups have called on the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman for the shooting death of the unarmed black 17-year-old.

On Sunday, NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous started a petition calling for the Justice Department to open such a case. The verdict has also been a subject at the NAACP’s annual convention, which is held this week in Orlando.

Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday night in a February 2012 shooting that tapped into a national debate about racial profiling, equal justice, and self-defense. Civil rights leaders, Martin’s parents, and many others said Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin when he followed the teenager through a gated townhouse community and shot him, but Zimmerman said he was physically assaulted by Martin and shot the teenager in self-defense.

Federal prosecutors pursuing a civil rights case would have to establish, among other things, that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animosity.

Lauren Resnick, a former federal prosecutor in New York who secured a conviction in the killing of an Orthodox Jew during the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, said the Justice Department could proceed under a theory that Zimmerman interfered with Martin’s right to walk down a public street based on his race. But even that is difficult since the conflict occurred in a gated community, which may not fit the legal definition of a public facility.

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.

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