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Monday
Jul152013

Zimmerman Could Face Civil Suits, Death Threats, Federal Prosecution

Joe Burbank - Pool/Getty Images(SANFORD, Fla.) -- George Zimmerman left a Florida courtroom Saturday night a free man after being acquitted of murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, but his troubles are likely far from over.

Although jail time is no longer a threat for Zimmerman, his lawyer says he fears for his life and may have to remain in hiding.  He also potentially faces civil suits, which could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and cause possible financial ruin.

In criminal cases, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, and in most jurisdictions the jury's decision has to be unanimous.  But in a civil case, the standard of proof is lower: The plaintiff's burden is, in essence, "more likely than not," rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Martin's family, the parents of the slain teenager are considering additional legal options, including whether to sue Zimmerman in civil court.

"They are certainly going to look at that as an option," Crump said on ABC's This Week.  "They deeply want a sense of justice.  They deeply don't want their son's death to be in vain."

The Orlando Sentinel reported in April that Martin's parents had settled a wrongful-death claim against the homeowners association of the Sanford, Fla., subdivision where their son was killed.

Zimmerman, 29, was accused of second degree murder for shooting Martin, 17, on Feb. 26, 2012, inside the gated community.  While he admitted to shooting the unarmed teenager, Zimmerman maintained the teen attacked him and he acted in self defense.

The case quickly developed racial overtones when Sanford law enforcement declined to arrest Zimmerman.  Zimmerman is white and Hispanic, and Martin was black.  Zimmerman was arrested nearly two months after the incident when the state appointed Angela Corey as a special prosecutor and she brought second degree murder charges against him.

A jury made up of six women found Zimmerman not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter charges on Saturday, after deliberating for more than 16 hours over two days.

"As you look at this case, you have what took place in the court, which had to deal with the law, but the court of public opinion is where this thing is exploded," ABC News Chief Investigative correspondent Pierre Thomas said on ABC's This Week.  "The bar is extremely high, but the Justice Department will be under intense pressure by the civil rights community to do something."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) released a statement shortly after the verdict was announced, calling on the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder to take action after Zimmerman was found not guilty by a Florida jury.

"Today, justice failed Trayvon Martin and his family," said Roslyn M. Brock, Chairman of the NAACP.  "We call immediately for the Justice Department to conduct an investigation into the civil rights violations committed against Trayvon Martin.  This case has re-energized the movement to end racial profiling in the United States."

An NAACP petition calling for a federal prosecution of Zimmerman has collected more than 350,000 signatures -- some 225,000 on the NAACP site and another 130,000 where it was posted online in the NAACP's partnership with MoveOn.org.

The U.S. Justice Department has been conducting its own investigation into whether the shooting was motivated by racial pretense -- meaning Zimmerman could be charged with a federal hate crime even though he was acquitted in state court -- and could also take Zimmerman to trial.

The DOJ released a statement post-verdict saying their investigation was ongoing.

"The department continues to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial," a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement Saturday.

Zimmerman's attorney Mark O'Mara told reporters at a press conference Saturday that his client will now focus on getting his life back.

"This verdict still has nothing to do with civil rights.  Civil rights has to be talked about, but not in relation to George Zimmerman," O'Mara said about the trial's effect on race relations.  "This is a tragedy but not one that Zimmerman is responsible for."

But O'Mara told ABC News that Zimmerman continues to fear for his safety.  He is still wearing a bulletproof vest and he may still have to live in hiding.

If a civil case is brought against Zimmerman, Nightline anchor and ABC's Chief Legal Affairs anchor Dan Abrams said that, in Florida, his defense team can make a motion to have a civil case dismissed under the "Stand Your Ground" law.  It states that a person whose self defense claim is found lawful "is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such self defense."

In April, Zimmerman's defense team chose to waive the pre-trial Stand Your Ground hearing, and put their case before a jury.  The hearing would have given the judge the discretion to free Zimmerman, eliminating the need for a trial.  But the validity of a Stand Your Ground defense would be determined solely by a judge.

If Zimmerman were given immunity from a civil suit under the "Stand Your Ground" law, Abrams said, the defense might be able to win "reasonable attorney's fees, court costs, compensation for loss of income, and all expenses incurred in defense of any civil action brought by a plaintiff," according to Florida law.

Martin's family might be reluctant to file a civil suit, Abrams added, because they may decide it is not worth the emotional cost or they might fear that they could wind up owing Zimmerman money, if he is deemed to have "stood his ground" under the Florida law.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio