By Kevin Liptak, CNN
(CNN) — The Justice Department said following the George Zimmerman acquittal that it has an ongoing civil rights investigation of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
“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, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate,” the statement said on Sunday.
Additionally, leaders at the nation’s oldest civil rights organization have spoken with senior members of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s team at the Justice Department about pursuing federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, NAACP president Ben Jealous said Sunday, though Holder himself has noted the high bar for establishing a hate crime.
Speaking to chief political correspondent Candy Crowley on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Jealous said he hadn’t yet spoken with Holder himself, but that in conversations with Justice Department officials, he had pressed the federal government to continue investigating the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
“We are glad what they began months back continues, which is a serious reviewing of everything that came out in this case, everything that was known before this case,” Jealous said.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Martin in February 2012, was acquitted by a jury late Saturday on state criminal charges. A federal civil rights investigation was previously opened in the case, and on Saturday a Justice Department spokesman told CNN the agency “continues to evaluate the evidence generated.”
Yet in order for federal charges to be brought against Zimmerman, the Justice Department would need to establish that a hate crime was committed, a legal burden Holder has said in the past would be a challenge to meet.
“For a federal hate crime we have to prove the highest standard in the law,” Holder said in April 2012. “Something that was reckless, that was negligent does not meet that standard. We have to show that there was specific intent to do the crime with requisite state of mind.”
President Barack Obama, who spoke in personal terms about Trayvon Martin in the aftermath of the teenager’s killing more than a year ago, did not publicly react to Saturday’s verdict. A White House official referred to the Justice Department’s statement when asked about the NAACP’s calls for federal civil rights changes against Zimmerman.
On “State of the Union,” Jealous argued those charges were a necessary step, given certain factors in the Zimmerman case.
“They will make a choice about whether or not they will pursue criminal civil rights charges. We are calling on them to do just that,” he said. “When you look at (Zimmerman’s) comments, when you look at his comments about young black men in that neighborhood, about how they felt specially targeted by him, there is reason to be concerned that race was a factor in why he targeted young Trayvon.”
Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, argued on CNN that a continued probe should also focus on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which was used in Zimmerman’s self-defense argument.
“I think justice will be done eventually,” Fattah said. “That is to say that there’s a situation right now where a jury has ruled, but I don’t think that we have seen the end of this, if there’s a real problem here with what the Florida justice system has said about what is permissible for a person to do and get away with.”
On Saturday, Jealous and the NAACP released a statement saying they were “outraged and heartbroken” over the not-guilty verdict, which the group’s leader explained further in the CNN interview.
“We’re upset with the situation in this country. As black parents raising black boys and black girls in this society, it feels so often that our young people have to fear the bad guys and the good guys,” he said. “The robbers and the cops and the self-appointed community watch volunteer who thinks he’s keeping people safer.”
Politicians from both parties weighed in on Saturday’s verdict during appearances on television Sunday morning. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, calling Martin’s death a “tragic event,” said he respected the jury’s decision.
“Although there may be people on either side of this that don’t agree how this came out, the fact is we have the best judicial system in the world and we respect it,” he said on CNN. “It’s my opinion that a very thoughtful case was made by each side, the jurors made the decision, and we will live with that.”
Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he accepted the verdict as fair.
“I don’t always agree with what the jury does, but that’s the system,” said the Nevada Democrat. “And I support this system.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Steve King of Iowa, an outspoken Republican, blasted Obama’s administration for becoming involved in the Zimmerman case, arguing it had been turned into a political issue instead of a legal matter.
“The evidence didn’t support prosecution and the Justice Department engaged in this. The president engaged in this and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law and order,” King said.