In Washington 21/2 years ago, the nation's top civil-rights enforcer, Thomas Perez at the U.S. Department of Justice, sat down with Sanford's mayor, city manager and U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and promised to investigate whether Trayvon Martin was the victim of something more heinous than a homicide.
Was he also the victim of a killer intent on harming him because he was black?
That was March 20, 2012. The Department of Justice still has no answer to that question.
Civil-rights investigators are due back in Central Florida this week to continue their work on the case.
The agency has repeatedly refused to discuss what it has unearthed, whom it is talking to and when the investigation will conclude.
But two people with ties to the case report they've recently been in touch with the department or the FBI, the legmen sometimes used by the DOJ.
One is Frank Taaffe, a former friend of George Zimmerman's. The Neighborhood Watch volunteer killed Trayvon, an unarmed black 17-year-old, in Sanford on Feb. 26, 2012.
Taaffe was interviewed last month by two DOJ civil-rights attorneys and an FBI agent in Maitland, he said, and they've asked for another interview this week.
He has not agreed to talk this time, he said.
The other is Shiping Bao, the former assistant Volusia County medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Trayvon, a high-school junior from Miami Gardens.
In an interview last week, Bao told the Orlando Sentinel that in March the Justice Department sent an FBI agent from Springfield, Ill., near where he now works, to interview him.
"We talked about two hours," Bao said.
He said he also expected to meet with federal officials again soon, possibly this week, to provide more information.
Bao said the agent's questions centered on whether Zimmerman had violated Trayvon's civil rights.
On that point, he told the agent, he was not sure but added that he believed the teenager's rights were violated by the Medical Examiner's Office, the Sanford Police Department and Special Prosecutor Angela Corey.
Bao recently published a 37-page book about the case and his subsequent firing. In it he accused those three agencies of failing to collect key pieces of evidence, of sloppily handling some pieces of evidence — Trayvon's clothes — and poor trial preparation.
Ex-official sees no violation
Zimmerman, 30, of Sanford was acquitted of second-degree murder by a Seminole County jury July 13, 2013. He had called police Feb. 26, 2012, after seeing Trayvon walking through his neighborhood, described him as suspicious, then got out of his truck and followed him on foot.
He shot Trayvon, he told police, after the teenager knocked him to the ground with a punch to the nose, then climbed on top and began hammering his head into the sidewalk.
Sanford police did not arrest him, saying they did not have enough evidence to justify criminal charges, something that set off weeks of civil-rights marches in Sanford, across the country and beyond.
His acquittal also set off protests, including violent ones in California.
Within days of that verdict, Zimmerman's gun and other pieces of evidence, including Trayvon's clothes and the bag of Skittles found in his pocket, were turned over to the FBI for the civil-rights investigation.
What agents have done with those items and whom they've interviewed have not been disclosed. Neither the department nor the FBI would discuss the case.
"To have a good-faith basis to prosecute, they've got to have a reasonable likelihood of conviction," said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Jancha, now in private practice in Orlando.
Based on the evidence that came out at Zimmerman's murder trial, Jancha said he saw "absolutely none" that suggested Zimmerman was guilty of a civil-rights violation.
Some thought probe was closed
The list of people who say they have not been interviewed by federal investigators is surprising: estranged wife Shellie Zimmerman plus Zimmerman's mother, father, sister and brother.
"It is something we very much think about all the time," said Robert Zimmerman Jr., the former defendant's brother. "We just figured, hey, they're the world's best investigators. They must be taking their time. … It's just very strange that no one from the FBI or DOJ has spoken to our family."
Some people contacted by the Sentinel, including a former Sanford Police Department manager involved in the homicide investigation, said the civil-rights investigation was begun so long ago, they assumed it had been closed.
Perez, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and who was directly involved in the decision to launch the probe, has since become U.S. secretary of labor.
FBI agents went to work on the case shortly after that March 20, 2012, meeting among Perez, Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett, City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. and Brown, according to prosecution records released by Corey.
At least six agents began questioning Zimmerman's friends, associates, even a former girlfriend who convinced a judge to issue a domestic-violence injunction against him.
In three dozen interviews of friends, neighbors, co-workers and Sanford cops, no one characterized Zimmerman as a racist.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun