Those of you with Facebook have probably been witness to a number of completely idiotic posts about the George Zimmerman not guilty verdict. People who get their news primarily from HuffPo and Slate, with a little bit trickling in from The Root, believe that there was conclusive proof that racist vigilante George Zimmerman "hunted" Trayvon Martin, tracked him down, and shot him in cold blood. Among people who actually followed the evidence and who have a basic understanding of criminal law, there is near universal acknowledgement that the state didn't prove it's case, that the key question is who actually instigated the fight to which there are no eye witnesses other than Zimmerman, and that with such a weak case the state should not have even brought charges against Zimmerman.
You've probably also seen stories about Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated battery for firing a "warning shot" at her abusive husband, and for whom the Stand Your Ground defense was rejected. Your Facebook friends have probably failed to note the important detail that Alexander, feeling threatened, left her home, went out to her car, got her gun out of her car, and then went back inside. The Stand Your Ground law says you can defend yourself without retreating (the Castle Rule would have applied anyways, because she was in her house), but it doesn't say you can go back in after retreating.
Lastly, you may have seen people on Facebook discussing the Department of Justice bringing charges against Zimmerman for deprivation of civil rights, since the right to life is of course the most fundamental of civil rights. Think for two seconds about federal powers and state powers and double jeopardy and all that, and it might strike you as odd that the DoJ could prosecute someone for deprivation of civil rights for a crime like this. It would mean they could prosecute just about anyone for any crime, since we tend to define crimes as when you infringe on another person's rights (regulatory crimes are of course the exception). And of course the DoJ doesn't have jurisdiction over every crime. Let's take a look at the law, 18 USC 242:
Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or to different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.
The key phrase here is "under color of law." Hey, stand your ground is a law! Let's go get 'em! ...Hold on there, sparky. The Supreme Court has been pretty clear in its rulings on this. This law and the corresponding 1983 civil action law might be phrased very broadly, but they cover only state actors or civilians acting in coordination with the state. There's not even a colorable (ha!) argument that George Zimmerman was a state actor when he shot Trayvon Martin. It doesn't take a particularly sophisticated legal analyst to realize a federal civil rights case is a non-starter.
But let's be fair to your Facebook friends. The law is written in overbroad language, and someone who hasn't been to law school might think it applies. You know who we shouldn't be fair to though? The NAACP for getting the idea into people's heads that the DoJ could bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Their petition for a federal prosecution had more than 500,000 signatures as of yesterday, despite their website crashing under the heavy traffic. Here's the text of the NAACP's petition:
Attorney General Eric Holder,
The Department of Justice has closely monitored the State of Florida's prosecution of the case against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder since it began. Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act.
The most fundamental of civil rights — the right to life — was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.
Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.
Unlike your Facebook friends who aren't legally sophisticated, the NAACP has lawyers. Probably a lot of them, and some of them are probably pretty good lawyers. There is absolutely no way the NAACP believes a federal case or its petition has legs. So why bother?
Probably because they know it's going to fail. They know that a lot of people are upset about the verdict, and believe that finding Zimmerman not guilty is an attack on black people everywhere. And they know they can get those people's hopes up with this petition. Don't worry that Florida has failed you, Obama and Holder are going to come through for black people.
They are getting people's hopes up with the expectation of having those hopes dashed, just to use it as a flimsy indictment of America. The federal government won't act, at least not with a civil rights prosecution, and the NAACP will spin that as proof that America is racist to its core, without mention that the federal government doesn't have the authority to do so.
Way to go, NAACP. Ordinarily we'd say it's wrong to prey upon people's ignorance of the law and to take advantage of them while they're in an emotionally vulnerable state, but you know, so long as it's for the greater good, carry on.