By Jordy Yager and Justin Sink - 07/16/13 01:15 AM EDT
The White House said Monday that President Obama will not be a part of the Justice Department’s deliberations over whether to pursue federal hate crime charges against George Zimmerman, distancing itself from a decision fraught with the potential for political fallout.
Attorney General Eric Holder offered no signal Monday about whether the department was leaning toward pursuing a case against Zimmerman, the Florida man found not guilty over the weekend of murdering Trayvon Martin.
Holder said in separate remarks that the death of the Florida teenager was “unnecessary” and “tragic.”
“They will have to do some pretty tortuous legal reasoning to get to a point where they can bring a case here,” said Mark Corallo, who served as public affairs director for the DOJ under former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
“Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted. There was very little evidence brought forward in the case that pointed to any racial motive whatsoever. I don’t think they’re going to want to go there.”
Holder and Obama face a difficult political decision as well. Much of the president’s base has been voicing outrage over the verdict, pushing hard for the Justice Department to open a federal case against Zimmerman.
A jury on Saturday found Zimmerman not guilty of manslaughter and second-degree murder charges, accepting the accused’s claim he was defending himself against Martin.
On Sunday the DOJ, in concert with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Florida, said it was weighing the evidence against Zimmerman and the state trial record to determine if Martin’s civil rights were violated.
The DOJ began investigating Martin’s killing last year but put the case on hold when state prosecutors opened their criminal case against Zimmerman. The FBI also investigated the slaying, interviewing more than 30 people, only to resolve that race did not appear to be a motivating factor for Zimmerman.
If the DOJ does decide to pursue civil rights charges, it would escalate the already high-profile case and put the administration at its center.
But if it decides not to bring a case against Zimmerman, the political and public opinion fallout could be dire.
Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher warned there could be serious repercussions for establishment Democrats if they attempt to ignore or marginalize Martin’s death.
“The base of the Democratic Party and the base of the country today is brown people,” said Belcher.
“There’s no majority Democratic coalition without brown people as their base ... and I don’t think you can look at the suffering the base of the progressive movement is going through right now and not expect some sort of mobilization.”
DOJ investigators and prosecutors are in the throes of deciding whether to bring the case.
If they decline to recommend that the DOJ move on it, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, or Holder himself, could reject the advice and file charges on behalf of the department.
But the danger for the administration is that the investigators and prosecutors could then leak their findings to the media with strong suggestions that political motivations lay behind the decision to pursue the matter, according to two former high-ranking DOJ officials who agreed to speak on background.
Political pressure from within the party is steadily building, as many Democrats have expressed their support for a DOJ review.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the case “isn’t over with.” And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wrote to Holder on Monday, backing the department’s move to open its review.
“I respect the fact that the jury has spoken in the State of Florida v. George Zimmerman case, but I don’t think this should be the last word,” said Boxer.
As of press time on Monday, the nation’s most prominent civil rights group, the NAACP, said it had received more than 270,000 signatures on a petition pushing Holder to act. The group said that it had spoken with top officials at the department about the review.
Regardless of the DOJ’s ultimate decision, which is expected within the coming months, Belcher said that Obama will have to address the case in a more significant way in the near future.
“The president is going to speak on it because every reporter in the country is going to ask him a question about it, so it’s not something he’s going to be able to avoid,” he said.
Corallo said that if the DOJ decides not to take up the case, it is fortunate that the president is a Democrat. He argued the facts of the case will be allowed to speak for themselves — without political rivals blaming one another for politicizing the issue.
“As a country I think we can be grateful for the fact that we have a Democratic administration and the political leadership of the Justice Department is Democratic, and so there won’t be any charges of Republicans snuffing a civil rights case,” said Corallo.