Civil rights groups reacted with disappointment to the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial.
After the outcome became known late Saturday, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said it would push for the Department of Justice to bring civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who was accused in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old black youth Trayvon Martin.
Speaking to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Jealous compared the Zimmerman trial to the one six decades ago of two white men who were acquitted for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, a black teen in Mississippi.
“We hoped that the verdict this time would reflect the gravity of what happened,” he told host Rachel Martin. “The reality is that if Mr. Zimmerman had done what the police had asked and stayed in his vehicle, Mr. Martin would still be with his family today.”
Jealous, who leads the country’s oldest civil rights organization, acknowledged however that the verdict did not necessarily mean the jury thought Zimmerman’s actions were right, only that there was reasonable doubt as to his guilt.
“It does not actually mean that Mr. Zimmerman should have killed Mr. Martin. It doesn’t mean that Mr. Zimmerman was right to get out of his car. It doesn’t mean that he was right to intentionally purchase a firearm with no safety,” he said. “So, it’s important that we keep this in perspective.”
Several other civil rights groups voiced similar reactions to the verdict, seen by many as a bellwether for judicial equity and race relations.
Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the verdict “a tragic miscarriage of justice.”
“While there is no doubt that this was a difficult case for the jury, the outcome is deeply disappointing,” Arnwine said in a statement. “Yet, 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.”
ColorofChange.org, which describes itself as the “nation’s largest online civil rights organization” issued the following statement from its executive director, Rashad Robinson:
“This is another tragedy for Black families everywhere, and another instance of how law enforcement and our criminal justice system routinely fail Black people and communities,” Robinson said.
“In a media environment that continues to cast Black men and boys as thugs, it’s not surprising that the tragic death of an innocent young man has become a character trial for Black people everywhere,” he said.
And Richard Cohen, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, issued this statement:
“Trayvon is dead, and Zimmerman is free. Can we respect the jury verdict and still conclude that Zimmerman got away with killing Trayvon? I think so, even if we buy Zimmerman’s story that Trayvon attacked him at some point,” Cohen said in a statement released to the media.
“The jury has spoken, and we can respect its conclusion that the state did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. But we cannot fail to speak out about the tragedy that occurred in Sanford, Florida, on the night of February 26, 2012,” he said.
Update At 3:45 p.m. ET. Justice Dept. Says It Has ‘Open Investigation’
A Department of Justice spokesperson said Sunday that “we have an open investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin.”
In a statement emailed to NPR, the spokesperson said:
“The Department of Justice’s Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial. 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 in accordance with the Department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.”