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Holder: Travyon Martin Killing 'Tragic, Unnecessary'


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish, and we begin this hour in Washington with Attorney General Eric Holder.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: We've travelled a long way down the road to equality and opportunity. But, as we have seen in Sanford, our journey is not yet complete and our work is far from over.

CORNISH: Holder was speaking at the annual meeting of Delta Sigma Theta, a prominent African-American sorority. And Sanford is, of course, a reference to the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Sanford, Florida. Over the weekend, Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges, including second-degree murder.

Looking forward, Holder confirmed today that the Justice Department is exploring whether it can bring a federal hate crime case against him. And for more on that, we're joined by NPR's Carrie Johnson. And Carrie, what more can you tell us about this federal civil rights investigation into George Zimmerman?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Here's what we know so far, Audie. This federal investigation is ongoing. The U.S. attorney in Florida and criminal prosecutors from the Justice Department's civil rights division have been monitoring the course of this state trial. They're also keeping their eyes and ears open for more evidence. But, Audie, the FBI already did a lot of interviews last year after Martin's killing and the word we were getting back then was that they had not uncovered any kind of smoking gun with regard to racial animosity by George Zimmerman that would make this a very rock solid kind of hate crime case.

And as a result of that, former prosecutors are telling me that they do not expect a federal criminal prosecution, although, there's always a chance that prosecutors could turn something up now.

CORNISH: I mean, given what you're saying about the FBI and these prosecutors, it seems like the odds are low for a Justice Department prosecution here. I mean, why is that?

JOHNSON: In part, Audie, because the federal jurisdiction in this case is very limited. Really, the only way in is to prove that George Zimmerman had some kind of racial motivation, some kind of racial animosity in targeting Trayvon Martin, and that would be the basis of a hate crime charge. But, Audie, the burden of proof in that kind of criminal case is very, very high for the federal government, much higher than the manslaughter case that a state jury in Florida just acquitted George Zimmerman of over the weekend.

So, you know, it's a really high bar at this point.

CORNISH: What other options are there in the courts for Trayvon Martin's family?

JOHNSON: The family could file a civil wrongful death action against George Zimmerman. We know from the attorneys that they are exploring that kind of option at this point. And that kind of trial, if it gets that far, could actually involve George Zimmerman having to take the witness stand and testify. Remember, he didn't do that in the state criminal case.

CORNISH: Now, we heard Attorney General Eric Holder say the country's still far from the promise of equal justice. What does he mean?

JOHNSON: Eric Holder - and not for the first time - has talked about having a national conversation on some of these issues. Let's take a listen to what he said today.

HOLDER: I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised. We must not, as we have too often in the past, let this opportunity pass.

JOHNSON: So Audie, what he's talking about here is actually a synthesis of many of the things he's tried to advance in his four, four and a half years as attorney general. That includes violence against young people like Trayvon Martin. It includes the persistence of racial stereotypes and attitudes that lead to mistrust and violence. It includes having a national dialogue about all of these things, which, remember, shortly after he became attorney general, he called on the country to do.

It didn't go over so well back then. And finally, in talking about violence, one of Eric Holder's priorities in this second term that he's had as attorney general so far has been combating gun violence. Congress did not advance the president's legislative proposal on that but I don't think that debate is over. At least Eric Holder doesn't want it to be over at this point.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.