20 Mar 2012

Was the shooting of Trayvon Martin a ‘hate crime’?

Europe Editor and Presenter

Teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead as he returned home from buying sweets in Florida. But the man who shot him has yet to be arrested, as Washington Correspondent Matt Frei reports.

The shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, will be investigated by a Florida grand jury as well as the US Department of Justice. It follows global outcry and one of the biggest petitions in history because the gunman, neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman, has not yet been arrested.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, member of the House Judiciary Committee, told Channel 4 News it has become “clear” that Trayvon’s civil rights were “violated”.

She said: “This young man was simply going home. The Sanford police department has done absolutely nothing.

“It is clear that the civil rights of this youngster have been violated.

“Mr Zimmerman is hiding behind a law of the state of Florida that says you can stand your ground if you’re attacked. The author of that bill said it’s not a bill to pursue and confront.

“So the question is what was Mr Zimmerman afraid of? Why did he shoot point-blank at this teenager? Why did he call him an ugly word?

“Was this a hate crime? Did he become a threat because he had dark skin?”

Internet campaign

More than 500,000 people, many alerted by tweets from stars such as film director Spike Lee and musician Wyclef Jean, have signed a petition on Change.org, a social action website, calling for Mr Zimmerman to be arrested.

Jonathan Perri, criminal justice senior organiser for Change, told Channel 4 News: “This is the second largest petition [we have] ever hosted.

Wyclef Jean tweeted: "This is real Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old! if we let this slide they will keep killin 17 year olds your kid will be next!"

“It’s the powerful personal story of Trayvon’s parents… that is moving people all over the world to sign in support of this family. Social media platforms like Change.org, Twitter, and Facebook are the conduit for Trayvon’s parents’ story to get out to the world.”

Earlier, Trayvon’s mother Sybrina Fulton told reporters: “I would like to see an arrest. I would like to see this man brought to justice.”

Phone call

The teenager’s last moments, on 26 February, came to light in phone records which show Trayvon spoke to a female friend shortly before he was shot. Family lawyer Ben Crump said the girl’s testimony shows that Mr Zimmerman targeted the teenager “because he was black”.

The girl told lawyers that Trayvon said he was being followed and that she had encouraged him to run. The teen was returning to watch a basketball game in the gated community in Sanford, after going to buy Skittles sweets and iced-tea.

“She knew details about what went on because he was telling her,” Crump said.

“Trayvon said, ‘Why you following me, man?'” and Zimmerman said, ‘What are you doing here?'” Crump said.

He said the girl could tell by Martin’s voice that he was then pushed. She thinks Martin’s mobile phone headset came off and then the call was disconnected.

Stand your ground

Because of changes to Florida state law in 2005, prosecutors may not be able to charge Mr Zimmerman. Under the previous law, deadly force was allowed in self-defence only if they had tried to run away or otherwise avoid the danger.

Under the new law, there is no duty to retreat and it gives a resident of Florida the right “to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force,” if he feels threatened.

The Justice Department said its investigation would examine the facts and circumstances of the shooting, and noted that with all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally.

“Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws,” the Justice Department said.

Jonathan Peri added: “The investigation could have a number of outcomes including the arrest of George Zimmerman or potentially finding misconduct within the Sanford Police Department for their investigation of the Trayvon’s killing.”

What is a grand jury?
A grand jury is a group of citizens, usually chosen from the same pool as trial jurors, that is sworn in by a court to hear a case. The grand jury is composed of between 12 and 23 people; and in the federal courts, between 16 and 23.