Today, speaking at the national convention of Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American sorority, Attorney General Eric Holder called George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin "unnecessary" while noting that his department is mulling a second prosecution of Zimmerman, who was acquitted by a state jury on Saturday after arguing that he acted in self-defense. Was Holder declaring that the jury got it wrong and prejudging the outcome of the Justice Department's investigation? Not necessarily, but that is one plausible inference, and it would have been better for him to avoid commenting on the case so as not to create the appearance that the fix is in. Here is the context of Holder's remark:
As this celebration unfolds, we are also mindful of the pain felt by our nation surrounding the tragic, unnecessary shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida last year—and the state trial that reached its conclusion over the weekend. As parents, as engaged citizens, and as leaders who stand vigilant against violence in communities across the country, the Deltas are deeply, and rightly, concerned about this case. The Justice Department shares your concern—I share your concern – and, as we first acknowledged last spring, we have opened an investigation into the matter.
Independent of the legal determination that will be made, 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. I hope that we will approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon's parents, have demonstrated throughout the last year—and especially over the past few days. They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure—and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive. Even as we embrace their example and hold them in our prayers, we must not forego this opportunity to better understand one another and to make better this nation we cherish.
Moreover, I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law. We are committed to standing with the people of Sanford, with the individuals and families affected by this incident, and with our state and local partners in order to alleviate tensions, address community concerns, and promote healing. We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion—and also with truth. We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents. And we will never stop working to ensure that—in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community —justice must be done.
Perhaps Holder meant that Martin's death was unnecessary in the sense that it would not have happened if Zimmerman had not deemed him suspicious and started following him. As the prosecution emphasized during the trial, Martin would still be alive if Zimmerman had instead continued on his shopping trip to Target. But that kind of culpability is not enough to make Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter, let alone second-degree murder. As the prosecution conceded, everything Zimmerman did until the encounter turned violent, however unwise or unfair, was nevertheless perfectly legal. If Martin responded with violence, as Zimmerman claimed and the evidence suggested, and if the fight proceeded as Zimmerman described it, he reasonably believed shooting Martin was necessary to prevent death or serious injury. By calling the shooting "unnecessary," Holder could be questioning that claim, which was the basis for Zimmerman's acquittal. Technically, it is possible that Zimmerman reasonably believed something that was not true, but I doubt Holder is making such a fine distinction. So if the attorney general was commenting on Zimmerman's legal justification for the shooting, he was indeed disagreeing with the verdict and prejudging the conclusion of a federal investigation that could lead to a second prosecution aimed, in effect, at overturning the acquittal.