By Subhash Kateel
Trayvon Martin was born 18 years ago this month and killed by George Zimmerman a year ago today. His killing unleashed massive outrage and countless protests, #hashtags and Facebook profile pics of people in hoodies demanding that Zimmerman be arrested, charged and not allowed to “stand his ground.” But a year later, most of the hashtags are gone and the hoodied profile pics have fallen to the back of Facebook photo albums. Meanwhile, a mother and father are still left to mourn their son and the man finally arrested for his murder is back out on bail. But he shouldn’t be. And I don’t understand why people aren’t making a bigger deal out of it.
Ever since journalist Frances Robles published a series of audiotaped jailhouse conversations between George Zimmerman and his wife, Shellie Zimmerman, in the Miami Herald eight months ago, one question keeps coming up for me: why haven’t the Feds ever charged the Zimmermans with financial crimes? In the tapes and transcripts published in the Herald, a April 15, 2012 conversation seems to clearly implicate the couple in a somewhat serious money laundering-esque offense as they figure out what to do with the over $130,000 that supporters donated to Zimmerman’s Paypal account after he shot Trayvon Martin. Besides assuring her husband that the money would grant him “a great life.” The Zimmermans also had the following exchange.
George Zimmerman: “…cause you’re gonna take out $10 and put it, and keep it with you, in cash right? So that you…less that $10”Shellie Z: “Well, yeah like nine.”George Z.: “Right. Um. Let’s just say $10. I’m wondering, you have more than $10 right?”
[later]George Z: “Right. That’s what I’m saying. So if you have more than $10 then you can, maybe that same day, put 10 in hers and she can take the 10 out…”
The $10 that George Zimmerman refers to in the conversation is poorly concealed jail-speak for $10,000. The couple’s back and forth about depositing the money made it very clear that they preferred to deposit $9,000 into the bank instead of $10,000. And that is exactly what Shellie Zimmerman did, making eight deposits ranging from $7500 to $9,990 each between her husband’s credit union and her account. Why would she do that? According to the Bank Secrecy Act, depositing $10,000 into a domestic bank forces that bank to file a Currency Transaction Report to the IRS about the transaction, something you wouldn’t want to do if you were trying to keep that information from someone, say…a criminal court judge. In fact, during George Zimmerman’s initial bond hearing, he told the judge he was broke, earning him a low bail (which was later revoked and reinstated for a higher amount) and eventually earning his wife a perjury charge.
But beyond committing perjury, intentionally depositing less than $10,000 in the bank so that no Currency Transaction Report would be generated is a crime called “structuring,” and it can land you in federal prison for five years. Or as former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Neiman told the Associated Press:
"If Mrs. Zimmerman intentionally structured the financial transactions in a manner to keep the offense under $10,000, not only may she have committed perjury in the state case, but she also may have run afoul of several federal statutes and could face serious federal criminal charges."
This was all pointed out in several articles at the time (including Robles’ piece) and was even the subject of a Change.org petition. But despite a “parallel” FBI investigation into the Trayvon Martin case and the appointment of a “special” state prosecutor, no financial or “structuring” charge has been filed by any prosecutor (state or federal) against either Zimmerman.
Some may believe that a “structuring” charge matters less than other underlying issues surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder. But the financial crimes charges matter precisely because Trayvon Martin’s murder was never just about whether or not George Zimmerman was racist or if he was killed by “Stand Your Ground” laws. It was about the myriad ways in which the justice system works differently for different people.
The fact is, overcharging people in the criminal justice system, often for things that they didn’t do, happens way more than anyone wants to admit. Florida is no exception. A few weeks ago, the Orlando Sentinel highlighted cases of children being charged criminally for things like “talking back” that “once warranted a trip to the principal's office.” For grown-ups around the country, it is not unusual for a person caught possessing drugs to be charged with selling them or for a person to be charged with resisting arrest even when there was no underlying reason for them to be arrested in the first place.
In the case of George Zimmerman and his wife, we have actual audiotapes that millions of people have listened to indicating that improper cash transactions might have taken place. And yet, not a charge has been filed for a crime many of us believe we heard being committed with our own ears.
As a former community organizer that has worked with plenty of people caught up in the criminal justice system, I rarely see prison as a solution to society’s problems. I also do not believe that a structuring conviction or a murder conviction will ever bring Trayvon Martin back to his parents. But I have also never seen a man facing a murder rap be able to raise thousands of dollars because of that murder rap and yet be treated with kid gloves for the way he managed those thousands of dollars.
Regardless of what happens with George Zimmerman’s murder case, if he and his wife are never charged with financial crimes, then this whole saga truly does prove that the justice system works differently for different people.
Don’t forget to check out our show every Wednesday at 7pm EST.