The Justice Department's decision to not prosecute a civilian neighborhood watch volunteer for criminal civil rights violations in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager is not necessarily a harbinger of how it will rule in two other high-profile deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, legal experts say.
That is because the standards used to gauge the existence of such a crime committed by civilians are different from those used to measure the behavior of police officers, who can be charged with depriving someone of their civil rights by using excessive force in the course of duty.
Because George Zimmerman was not a police officer, the U.S. Justice Department could only prosecute him for fatally shooting teenager Trayvon Martin nearly three years ago if it had sufficient evidence his actions were motivated by racial bias or hatred, the experts say.
Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, without any legal authority associated with law enforcement officers. Zimmerman said he shot the 17-year-old Martin in self-defense, and he was acquitted by a jury in July 2013 of all state charges.
If he had been a sworn officer, federal prosecutors would have the option of pursuing "color of law'' charges against Zimmerman. It is this kind of federal case that might be brought against officers in recent contentious killings by white police officers of black suspects Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.
Those cases are also hard to prove; police officers are given latitude to use deadly force if they feel their lives are endangered.
"In the case of a police officer, what you're looking at is, did the police officer use excessive force that resulted in a death or injury or something else? It's not what a reasonable person would do. It's what a reasonable police officer would do under the circumstances,'' said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who handled civil right cases.
"For a private citizen, it is a hate crime, which has to be motivated by race,'' he added.
St. Louis community activist John Gaskins, a member of the NAACP's national board of directors, said he wasn't surprised by the decision to not charge Zimmerman federally in Martin's death. But he said "this doesn't give me much hope'' that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will be indicted.
"It's not encouraging to see that George Zimmerman was not indicted,'' Gaskins said.
The decision not to prosecute Zimmerman under federal civil rights laws came Tuesday in the waning days of Attorney General Eric Holder's tenure. The case became a flashpoint in the national conversation about race because Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, was not immediately arrested after shooting Martin, who is black.
The Justice Department concluded there was not enough evidence to establish that Zimmerman willfully deprived Martin of his civil rights — a difficult legal standard to meet — or killed the teenager because of his race.
"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 said in a news release.
The Justice Department's decision was not surprising because there was no direct or circumstantial evidence that Zimmerman's actions were motivated by race, said Tamara Rice Lave, a professor at the University of Miami's School of Law.
In a 911 call, as he followed Martin through their Sanford neighborhood and described Martin in response to the dispatcher’s question, Zimmerman said the teenager "looks black.''
"But he doesn't say the things that would make you think it was motivated by race,'' Lave said. "He doesn't call him the N-word.''
Zimmerman's attorney, Don West, said in a statement, "we are relieved but not surprised by the Department of Justice decision not to file federal civil rights charges" against his client.
"We have maintained all along that race played no part in the events surrounding Trayvon Martin's tragic death in February 2012," West said. "Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the state prosecution where the state prosecutor could have offered evidence of racial discrimination if it existed. No such evidence of racial motive was identified or presented."
A call to Zimmerman's cellphone went directly to voicemail.
Attorney Ben Crump, who represents Martin's family, said the Justice Department's decision not to file federal charges against Zimmerman was expected but still "a bitter pill to swallow.''
The February 2012 confrontation began after Zimmerman saw Martin walking in his neighborhood. Zimmerman called police to report a suspicious person and got out of his car and approached Martin, who was returning from a store while visiting his father and his father's fiancee at the same townhome complex where Zimmerman lived.
Zimmerman did not testify at his trial, but he told investigators he feared for his life after the two got into a fight and Martin straddled him, punched him and slammed his head into the ground during a fight.
The decision to not prosecute Zimmerman comes as Holder has made civil rights a cornerstone of his tenure.
Days after Zimmerman was acquitted, Holder said he considered Martin's death an "unnecessary shooting.'' In a news release Tuesday, Holder echoed remarks he made in the shooting's aftermath.
"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,'' Holder said. "We, as a nation, must take concrete steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.''
The Justice Department is also conducting a civil rights investigation of the Ferguson case, in which Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old man, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson; and the death of Eric Garner, who died in July after police put him in what appeared to be a chokehold. Both killings sparked massive protests across the country.
In those cases, the Justice Department has been investigating whether the officers deprived Brown and Garner of their civil rights by using excessive force. In both cases, a state grand jury declined to indict the police officers involved.