Following the unjust verdict in the George Zimmerman case, the Justice Department has toyed with the idea to continue its suspended investigation into the possibility of classifying the crime as a Hate Crime and mayexplore the option of trying Zimmerman in a Federal Court. As it turns out, the case that was being held was a criminal case as prosecuted by the State of Florida, and the Federal Government seems to think that it has strong enough grounds to try Zimmerman again on a different list of charges. This is a highly controversial move to make, and one has to wonder why the investigation wasn’t pursued concurrently with the criminal investigation—perhaps the Attorney General’s office was confident in the State’s ability to convict Zimmerman in the slaying of Martin; or perhaps in an uncharacteristic move the Obama Administration was being respectful of State’s rights and Jurisdictions. It could be that, as Eric Holder as stated, it would be hard to prove. Regardless of the actual reasons for the State standing down during Florida’s investigation and trial, the fact that they are now pursuing charges against Zimmerman has many wondering if this course of action is a violation of his Fifth Amendment right against Double Jeopardy.
As many of you know already, Double Jeopardy is the practice of being tried more than once for the same offense. The Conservative pundits are already starting to describe the Fifth’s particular wording against this kind of practice, while the Conservatives themselves are trying to “encourage” the enraged and pained masses to “move on” and to expend their energy elsewhere to make the streets safe. While such “encouragements” are being received (and rightfully so) as a slap in the face, and something sharper than a backhanded suggestion the question of Double Jeopardy is certainly a valid one and leaves those of us who are heartbroken and appalled with the justice system’s acquittal of Zimmerman with a philosophical and legal dilemma.
You see, if trying Zimmerman under Hate Crime violations for the same single act—in this case the shooting death (murder) of Trayvon Martin—is a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights then we are embarking on a slippery slope that could be used against minority communities and otherwise disenfranchised people when the verdict goes against the tides of popular opinion or the desires of the Government. In the United States the Prosecution cannot appeal a decision made in court, that is a right reserved only for the Defendant, except in the case of mistrial or some other procedural error. If the country were to go about changing that particular aspect of American Justice, even then it couldn’t be applied to George Zimmerman because it would be retroactive to the event and initial charge and trial. Other countries do allow for the State to appeal verdicts, but in so many better or worse ways America is not other countries.
What really concerns me, in this particular case, is that if changing the charge for a single act that was already beaten in court is paramount to Double Jeopardy then that is a very dangerous precedent for the Government to take. While those of us who are incredibly outraged and thirsty for legal justice against Zimmerman may be initially thrilled to see him tried and convicted in this way, we must ask ourselves what this means for other young men and women who are able to beat charges in court. What happens when this is turned against young men and women wrongfully accused of crimes who rightfully beat the charges and find themselves slammed with a litany of new charges and interpretations against the same act until something sticks.
There is a Supreme Court allowance in this in the 1932 case of Blockburger v. United States, which state that the Government may try for two crimes on the same act if the crimes contain markedly separate elements, and there is a precedent for this to occur after conviction in Grady v. Corbin of 1990, but Grady was in fact overturned in 1993 in US v. Dixon. It should be made clear however, that these cases don’t really address the particular issues of the Zimmerman case, but rather are an outlining that this isn’t the first time the government has attempted to find a way around the Fifth Amendment. What this legal history really means is that there is a narrow window of legality for the Justice Department to take this course of action, but only if they can somehow manage to make a strong enough distinction between Hate Crimes violence and Murder in the Second Degree or Manslaughter (probably as defined by the State of Florida).
If they cannot make a strong distinction, and manage to convict Zimmerman, not only will there be a painfully long appeals process, that will likely find it’s way before the Supreme Court it leaves two very unsavory likely rulings at the end. The first is that Zimmerman’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated (and probably his Seventh too) which would make him even more the hero to racists and Conservatives everywhere. The other would then be that the Government acted legally, and it opens the door to court persecution the likes of which this country has never seen before, with a legal precedent that is actually lauded by the communities the finding could be utilized against.
In light of this, it is a very dangerous task the Justice Department has undertaken. I am not entirely confident in Eric Holder’s department as I have seen little from them in the past to inspire great esteem in the face of Conservative opposition, and in some cases (Fast and Furious, for example) reasonable foresight in planning out operations at all. That is not to say that there isn’t competence enough in the Department to pull it off, though—after all you don’t get appointed to the office or get a job in the Department of Justice without having serious legal chops. The issue, and question is, in the face of the series of consequences and the concern of the legality of the course of action at large…which is the greater cause of justice? George Zimmerman behind bars, at the cost of a terribly sharp double edged sword, a continued and clear definition of Double Jeopardy? I can’t say, but I will certainly keep my eyes and ears open as the investigation develops.