Federal officials detail Trayvon Martin investigation
The death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has prompted closely watched investigations by local, state and federal officials.
On Thursday, The Times spoke with two federal officials – FBI Special Agent Dave Couvertier in the Tampa field office and Department of Justice spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa in Washington — about the federal investigation, possible findings and charges.
The Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, has said he acted in self-defense and has not been arrested. Critics say the 17-year-old Martin was singled out because he was African American.
What is the Justice Department doing now?
Hinojosa: We have an ongoing investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin and it is a parallel investigation. We are providing resources to the state while we do a thorough investigation.
What is the FBI investigating?
Couvertier: The parallel investigation we’re running is specifically focused on the death of Trayvon Martin and more specifically, were there any violations of his civil rights? We are not investigating the Sanford Police Department, which has been a little confusing for folks.
So there’s no federal investigation into the local police?
Hinojosa: When the Justice Department investigates a whole police department, like we did in New Orleans or in L.A., that is a pattern of practice investigation — that’s something different. We are not doing that here.
Are you investigating with local officials?
Couvertier: The [Florida] state attorney has started to investigate the state charges regarding the death of Trayvon Martin. That’s their lane. We’re in a parallel lane looking at all the facts in a comprehensive review looking at the circumstances surrounding the death. The threshold for the federal civil rights [violations] is relatively high. There’s some specific requirements that have to be met under that particular investigation or offense.
With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids – the highest level of intent in criminal law. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws.
What has your investigation included?
Couvertier: We’ve met with Trayvon’s parents, with their attorneys, with civic leaders in that community. We’ve also met with congressional representatives. We maintain contact with the state attorney’s office, the main prosecutor, Angela Corey.
Our special agent in charge, Steven Ibison, he has been leading those meetings. He’s also spoken to several people at the Police Department. We have been in regular contact with the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, Robert O’Neill, and with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. And we have been aggressively and methodically advancing the federal investigation.
How long is the FBI investigation expected to take?
Couvertier: The FBI is the lead investigating agency for the DOJ, and there’s no time frame for the investigation. As we’re working, briefings are presented to ensure information is passed in a timely fashion. At the conclusion, then the results of that case will be forwarded to the DOJ Civil Rights Division, at which time they will conduct a legal review of the facts and make a determination whether or not there is a civil rights federal violation. When Mr. Ibison and others met with the parents, they explained that process to them.
What happens if the civil rights division officials find there was a civil rights violation?
Couvertier: At that point, the U.S. attorney’s office here would start making preparations. There’s several vehicles to initiate that.
How would charges be filed?
Hinojosa: I can’t comment on that. But it might be helpful to see how we handled another parallel investigation.
We just had guilty pleas in a case in Mississippi involving the killing of an African American man. That was a parallel investigation where the local DA’s office prosecuted it and then they had state charges and we had federal charges. Not all of them pleaded guilty on state charges -- some did on federal. It just depends on the facts.
Since the state and federal investigations are parallel, will federal officials decide whether to file charges independently or in conjunction with Florida officials?
Hinojosa: We have communication with them, but our investigation is independent.
Are federal investigators working with the state attorney’s office, then, or independently?
Couvertier: We’re working with them in the sense of requesting their police reports and we’re collecting their work product. The state attorney’s office has been very receptive; they are sharing information as well. What we’re doing to reciprocate -- any federal resources that are available -- we’re making available to them. If they have certain evidence, for instance, we don’t need to go back and collect it. But
they’re not influencing our investigation.
So the FBI is not providing oversight of the state investigation?
Couvertier: Exactly. We’re not monitoring their investigation or dictating anything. That’s an investigation by a state attorney brought in from a different jurisdiction to create that independent review.
What happens if, in the course of your investigation, you uncover improprieties by local police or prosecutors?
Couvertier: If something like that did come up, that would be addressed accordingly, either by state [investigators], federal, or both. But right now we are focused on the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death and his civil rights. The state attorney’s office is looking at the death and how everything was handled so they would be aware of any issues and address those accordingly.
What would you ask the public to do to help now?
Couvertier: Let all the facts come out, let us finish our investigation and at that point, the nation will be better informed.
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