By WESLEY LOWERY
Daryl D. Parks, an attorney for the family of slain Florida teen, Trayvon Martin, said he does not believe the Justice Department will pursue federal hate crime charges against George Zimmerman, the man who claimed the Black teenager was acting suspiciously before he killed him.
However, even without hate crime charges, Parks said, it is clear that race played a role in Trayvon’s killing and that the family believes Sanford (Florida) police actively covered up the racial component to protect Zimmerman.
In an interview with board members of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) conducted via Skype, Parks, who is also president of the National Bar Association, said that after separate meetings with federal and state authorities, he doubts Trayvon’s alleged killer will be indicted with a federal hate crime. However, he is increasingly hopeful that Zimmerman will face state criminal charges.
The 17-year-old Trayvon was killed on February 26 as he returned from a trip to a convenience store to the house of his father’s fiancée in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Unarmed, carrying Skittles candy and ice tea and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, he was spotted by Zimmerman, 28, a captain of the community’s neighbourhood watch.
In 9-1-1 tapes released by Sanford police, Zimmerman tells the operator that Trayvon was acting suspiciously and appeared to be drugged. Zimmerman then pursued Trayvon on foot and, after a struggle, shot and killed the teenager, according to police. Police say Zimmerman was not arrested because there was no evidence disputing his claim of self-defence. (Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows the use deadly force for self-protection.) This has prompted a national outcry for state and federal officials to file charges.
Members of Trayvon’s family met with U.S. Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigations officials on the afternoon of March 26.
“It was rather clear that the attorney general is quite aware of the situation, and they have devoted a great deal of resources to this matter,” Parks said. “It’s very clear that this is a very high priority for this administration.”
The Martin family also met briefly with attorney Angela Corey, who was appointed as special prosecutor by Florida Governor Rick Scott to head the state’s investigation. Meanwhile, the legal team representing Trayvon’s family plans to pursue civil litigation against Zimmerman and the community’s Homeowner’s Association.
“Trayvon’s situation is very tragic for this family and, I think, for every Black person who lives in America,” Parks said. “We all know many situations where the person of colour was not given the benefit of the doubt. That’s a subtlety in America that a lot of people don’t talk about.”
Parks said he has not seen any photo or video evidence documenting any injuries sustained by Zimmerman during the altercation with Trayvon. He also said that Trayvon’s girlfriend who, attorneys say, spoke with him by phone just moments before his death, has yet to give a statement to police.
Zimmerman’s attorney, Craig Sonner, has said that if charges were laid against his client, they will argue that Zimmerman was acting in self-defence.
“George Zimmerman is trying to turn the story around,” Parks said. “At this point … you charge the guy. If he wants to try to explain it away, explain it to the jury.”
Parks said that Zimmerman’s legal team has not been in touch with the team representing the Martin family, but that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been in contact with Zimmerman.
Meanwhile, in addition to a number of civil rights leaders, various celebrities have reached out to the Martin family. Parks said the family received a call from Oprah Winfrey, and is appreciative of the public support from various professional athletes. Members of the Miami Heat basketball team, including Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, posted pictures of the team wearing hooded sweatshirts on their social media accounts in support of Trayvon’s family. Baltimore Ravens linebacker, Ray Lewis, who has three sons living in Sanford, has talked to the family by phone, Parks said.
“I don’t think it’s a political statement,” Parks said of the professional athletes who have expressed support. “Trayvon’s situation speaks to all of us. We’ve all had some situations where we felt that race played an issue … and they can identify with that.”
Parks said Trayvon’s killing, which has prompted a national dialogue on racial profiling in the U.S., is not unlike the historic case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black youth who was murdered in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a White woman in Mississippi. Till’s death and his mother’s decision to open his casket during the funeral, prompted a national effort to eliminate racist ‘Jim Crow’ laws.
“Most of us, especially those of us who live in the South, can clearly identify with this type of interaction with the police,” Parks said. “It’s not too often that we, as African-Americans, get to help America with its conscience just a little bit. This is our opportunity.”
Wesley Lowery is the Student Representative on the NABJ board of directors. He is a senior journalism major at Ohio University.