George Zimmerman won't face civil rights charges in death of Trayvon Martin

Zimmerman acquitted of murder in 2013

ORLANDO, Fla. – George Zimmerman will not face federal civil rights charges in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday.

Zimmerman was acquitted of criminal charges in 2013 in the killing of the 17-year-old Martin, who is African-American.

[RELATED: George Zimmerman Trial page | VIDEO: Zimmerman's other run-ins with law]

The case stirred a groundswell of emotion, much of it centered around race. Civil rights leaders, as well as Martin's relatives, took to the streets contending that the teen -- who'd gone out to get a drink and Skittles from a Sanford convenience store only to run into Zimmerman on his way back -- might still be alive today if not for the color of his skin.

Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, never denied shooting Martin, saying it was in self-defense.

Zimmerman wasn't charged right away -- his second-degree murder charge didn't occur until April 2012, a month after the Justice Department and FBI announced that they had opened an investigation.

Still, the bar was always high to charge Zimmerman under federal hate crime laws, as it is for anyone. The FBI defines a hate crime as "a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias."

Proving that a person attacked someone is one thing. Proving what was going through their mind when they did it -- especially if the other person is dead -- is much harder.

Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged the law's high standard in April 2012: "Something that was reckless, that was negligent does not meet that standard," Holder said. "We have to show that there was specific intent to do the crime with requisite state of mind."

"It's not about George Zimmerman. We should move on. He should move on," said Martin's family attorney, Natalie Jackson.

Jackson told Local 6 she wasn't surprised by Tuesday's decision, which comes just two days before the three-year anniversary of Martin's death.

"You have to prove that George Zimmerman's actions were motivated by his hatred of Trayvon's race. That's a very hard hurdle to go over," she said.

Others, like one-time Zimmerman friend Frank Taaffe, said they were stunned by the news.

"I was devastated, genuinely devastated," Taaffe told Local 6. "When is just is going to be served?"

Taaffe testified in Zimmerman's defense during his murder trial, but he did an about-face in the federal investigation. He testified against Zimmerman, calling him a racist.

"I am under the personal belief that it was now solely based on race," Taafe said.

Zimmerman's attorney, Don West, told Local 6 his client wouldn't be speaking on Tuesday's decision personally, but he did provide a statement that said, "We are relieved but not surprised by the Department of Justice's decision not to file federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman. We have maintained all along that race played no part in the events surrounding Trayvon Martin's tragic death in February 2012. Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the state prosecution, where the state prosecutor could have offered evidence of racial discrimination if it existed. No such evidence of racial motive was identified or presented. The jury in the state prosecution was satisfied that George Zimmerman acted in lawful self-defense. Their verdict should be respected. After an exhaustive and thorough re-examination of the state prosecution, and an independent investigation by the federal government, the Department of Justice concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to charge Mr. Zimmerman with a federal hate crime. We agree with their decision and are relieved that this case is now finally concluded."

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About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013. He is one of the station’s lead reporters. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.