WASHINGTON – Today, the Florida National News learned that the Justice Department independent federal investigation found insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. Prosecutors from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, officials from the FBI, and the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service met today with Martin’s family and their representatives to inform them of the findings of the investigation and the decision.
“The death of Trayvon Martin was a devastating tragedy. It shook an entire community, drew the attention of millions across the nation, and sparked a painful but necessary dialogue throughout the country,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Though a comprehensive investigation found that the high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met under the circumstances here, this young man’s premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface. We, as a nation, must take concrete steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.”
Following the shooting, a team of some of the department’s most experienced civil rights prosecutors and FBI agents conducted a comprehensive, independent investigation of the events of Feb. 26, 2012. The federal investigation was opened and conducted separately from the state of Florida’s investigation of the shooting under local laws. Once the state initiated the second-degree murder prosecution, federal investigators began monitoring the state’s case and halted active investigation in order not to interfere with the state’s trial. Federal investigators provided reports of interviews and other evidence they obtained to the state’s prosecution team.
Shortly after Zimmerman’s acquittal in state court on July 13, 2013, federal investigators resumed active investigation. Federal investigators reviewed all of the material and evidence generated by the state of Florida in connection with its investigation and prosecution of Zimmerman, including witness statements, crime scene evidence, cell phone data, ballistics reports, reconstruction analysis, medical and autopsy reports, depositions, and the trial record. Federal investigators also independently conducted 75 witness interviews and obtained and reviewed the contents of relevant electronic devices. The investigation included an examination of police reports and additional evidence that was generated related to encounters Zimmerman has had with law enforcement in Florida since the state trial acquittal. In addition, federal authorities retained an independent biomechanical expert who assessed Zimmerman’s descriptions of the struggle and the shooting.
The federal investigation sought to determine whether the evidence of the events that led to Martin’s death were sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman’s actions violated the federal criminal civil rights statutes, specifically Section 3631 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code or Section 249 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, as well as other relevant federal criminal statutes. Section 3631 criminalizes willfully using force or threat of force to interfere with a person’s federally protected housing rights on account of that person’s race or color. Section 249 criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury to a person because of that person’s actual or perceived race. Courts define “willfully” to require proof that a defendant knew his acts were unlawful, and committed those acts in open defiance of the law. It is one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law.
The federal investigation examined whether Zimmerman violated civil rights statutes at any point during his interaction with Martin, from their initial encounter through the fatal shooting. This included investigating whether there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman violated Section 3631 by approaching Martin in a threatening manner before the fatal shooting because of Martin’s race and because he was using the residential neighborhood. Investigators also looked at whether there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman violated Section 3631 or Section 249, by using force against Martin either during their struggle or when shooting Martin, because of Martin’s race.
“Although the department has determined that this matter cannot be prosecuted federally, it is important to remember that this incident resulted in the tragic loss of a teenager’s life,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division. “Our decision not to pursue federal charges does not condone the shooting that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and is based solely on the high legal standard applicable to these cases.”
After a thorough and independent investigation into the facts surrounding the shooting, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a violation of these statutes. Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed. This decision is limited strictly to the department’s inability to meet the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statutes; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the shooting.
The Justice Department is committed to investigations of allegations of bias-motivated violence and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that allegations of civil rights violations are fully and completely investigated. The department aggressively prosecutes criminal civil rights violations whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so.
Lawyer’s Group Text Causes 2nd Florida Murder Case Mistrial
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A prosecutor in a murder case complained about a judge’s ruling in a group text message that included the judge, resulting in a second mistrial for a man charged with killing his girlfriend’s young son. Now the defense wants the case dismissed altogether.
Broward County Judge Peter Holden refused to allow a 911 call as evidence against Corey Gorden, who is accused of killing the 3-year-old in 2015 and returning him in his car seat to his mother as if nothing had happened.
Assistant State Attorney Katya Palmiotto then sent a text complaining about the ruling to a group of current and former homicide prosecutors, the South Florida SunSentinel reported.
“Holden just sustained their objection and wouldn’t let us put the 911 call in as hearsay,” she wrote.
As a former homicide prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 2018, the judge remained in the group chat. And lawyers are prohibited in criminal cases from talking with the judge if the defendant’s lawyers are not present.
Defense lawyer Michael Gottlieb filed for mistrial on Wednesday, saying in a summary that the 15-year veteran prosecutor had been overheard saying she messed up “real bad.”
“The judge was visibly upset and appeared angry,” Gottlieb wrote.
Holden grilled the prosecutor about the text message before declaring a mistrial.
In May, another judge declared a mistrial when prosecutors asked a witness about Gorden’s refusal to give a statement. Criminal trial jurors are not permitted to consider the defendants silence as proof of guilt.
Holden has not set a hearing on Gottlieb’s motion to dismiss the case.
School shooter’s brain exams to be subject of court hearing
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A defense mental health expert in the penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz can pinpoint when he realized the 23-year-old mass murderer still has “irrational thoughts” — the two were making small talk when Cruz began describing plans for an eventual life outside prison.
Wesley Center, a Texas counselor, said that happened last year at the Broward County jail as he fitted Cruz’s scalp with probes for a scan to map his brain. The defense at hearings this week will try to convince Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that Center and other experts should be allowed to testify at Cruz’s ongoing trial about what their tests showed, something the prosecution wants barred.
“He had some sort of epiphany while he was in (jail) that would focus his thoughts on being able to help people,” transcripts show Center told prosecutors during a pretrial interview this year. “His life’s purpose was to be helping others.”
Cruz, of course, will never be free. Since his arrest about an hour after he murdered 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, there has never been any doubt his remaining years would be behind bars, sentenced to death or life without parole. Surveillance video shows him mowing down his victims with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle and he confessed, eventually pleading guilty in October.
Prosecutors made their argument for death to the seven-man, five-woman jury and 10 alternates over three weeks, resting their case Aug. 4 after the panel toured the still-bloodstained, bullet-pocked classroom building where the massacre happened.
The jurors also watched graphic surveillance videos; saw gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos; received emotional testimony from teachers and students who witnessed others die; and heard from tearful and angry parents, spouses and other family members about the victims and how their loved one’s death impacted their lives. They watched video of the former Stoneman Douglas student calmly ordering an Icee minutes after the shooting and, nine months later, attacking a jail guard.
Soon, it will be Cruz’s attorneys arguing why he should be spared, hoping to convince at least one juror their mitigating factors outweigh the prosecution’s aggravating circumstances — a death sentence must be unanimous.
But first, the trial took last week off to accommodate some jurors’ requests to deal with personal matters. The jury will also be absent this week as the sides argue before Scherer, who will decide whether brain scans, tests and other evidence the defense wants to present starting Aug. 22 is scientifically valid or junk, as the prosecution contends.
Center’s test and its findings will be subject to contentious debate. Called a “quantitative electroencephalogram” or “qEEG,” its backers say it provides useful support to such diagnoses as fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz’s attorneys contend created his lifelong mental and emotional problems.
EEGs have been common in medicine for a century, measuring brainwaves to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain ailments. But the qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, goes a step farther — a patient’s EEG results are compared to a database of brainwaves taken from normal or “neurotypical” people. While qEEG findings cannot be used to make a diagnosis, they can support findings based on the patient’s history, examination, behavior and other tests, supporters contend.
A “qEEG can confirm what you already know, but you can’t create new knowledge,” Center told prosecutors in his interview.
Dr. Charles Epstein, an Emory University neurology professor, reviewed Center’s findings for the prosecution. In a written statement to Scherer, he said EEGs using only external scalp probes like the one given Cruz are imprecise, making Center’s qEEG results worthless.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” he wrote.
Florida judges have given mixed rulings about allowing qEEGs since 2010, when the test helped a Miami-area man escape a death sentence for fatally stabbing his wife and severely wounding her mentally disabled 11-year-old daughter. Some judges have since allowed their admission, while others barred them. Scherer, who is overseeing her first death penalty trial, has never had a case where the defense tried to present a qEEG report.
Even if Scherer bars the test, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill and her team still have evidence that Cruz’s brain likely suffered damage in the womb, including statements by his late birth mother that she abused alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy.
They also have reports giving circumstantial evidence of his mental illness. Cruz got kicked out of preschool for hurting other children. During his years in public school, he spent significant time at a center for students with emotional issues. He also received years of mental health treatment.
Then there are his life circumstances. Cruz’s adoptive father died in front of him when he was 5; he was bullied by his younger brother and his brother’s friends; he was allegedly abused sexually by a “trusted peer;” he cut himself and abused animals; and his adoptive mother died less than four months before the shooting.
His youth will also be an issue — he was 19 when the shooting happened.
Attorneys not involved in the case say if Scherer wants to avoid having a possible death sentence overturned on appeal, she should give the defense wide latitude on what it presents so jurors can fully assess his life and mental health.
“If it’s a close call, I think she is going to bend to the defense — and the prosecution is not going to be happy,” said David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor.
Lawmaker, Florida school at odds on alleged bathroom attack
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Police in Florida say they will investigate a lawmaker’s allegation that a transgender student may have sexually assaulted a female student in a middle school bathroom over the summer — a rumored attack that school district officials say never occurred and that investigators say they received no reports about.
After reading Republican State Rep. Randy Fine’s social media posts about the alleged assault on Thursday, police in the eastern coast city of Melbourne, just south of Cape Canaveral, assigned two detectives to investigate the allegations, though they said they had received no previous word of an attack.
Fine told The Associated Press on Friday that some parents approached him, saying a teacher at the school told them about the incident but that the teacher was “afraid to go public because of fear of retaliation by the school district.”
Brevard Public Schools spokesperson Russell Bruhn disputed Fine’s allegations. “There was no attack. No victim, no witness, no parents coming forward, nothing,” he told the AP. “Rep. Fine owes our staff at Johnson Middle School an apology for making this baseless allegation.”
Fine, a Republican lawmaker known for fiery floor speeches marked by indignation, drew a national spotlight earlier this year when he sponsored a bill to dissolve the private government Walt Disney World controls on its property in Florida as punishment for the company’s opposition to a new law barring gender identity instruction in early grades that critics called “Don’t Say Gay.”
The reports began circulating on Wednesday, and Florida Today reported Thursday that Fine had sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz seeking an investigation into reports that a transgender student — granted access to the girl’s bathroom through the district’s open bathrooms policy — had assaulted a female student over the summer.
Melbourne police spokesperson Shaun Hill said the department received no reports of a sexual assault at the school over the summer. But he said Friday that the department, after seeing Fine’s social media posts, contacted him to ask for more information about the alleged incident, and assigned two detectives to the case. Hill said the investigation has just started and there is no further information available.
“I would assume that Rep. Fine would be eager to talk to the police himself and will also be eager to provide police with access to the concerned parents who have gone to him with this false information,” said Bruhn, the school district spokesperson.
In the letter to the education commissioner, Fine said parents have been “stonewalled” in their inquiries to the school district, including requests for public records.
Students attending summer school at Johnson were escorted to restrooms by adults during summer school because of ongoing construction, Bruhn told Florida Today, which first reported the story. He said students from other district schools were also attending classes there and were unfamiliar with the campus layout.
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