Attorney general Holder calls Martin killing an 'unnecessary shooting'
WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday called the killing of Trayvon Martin a "tragic, unnecessary shooting," and said the Justice Department will follow "the facts and the law" as it reviews evidence to see whether federal criminal charges are warranted.
In his first comments since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Martin case, Holder said the 17-year-old's death provides an opportunity for the nation to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally-charged issues. He said the nation must not forgo an opportunity toward better understanding of one another.
"I hope that we will approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon's parents, have demonstrated throughout the last year -- and especially over the past few days," Holder said. "They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure -- and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive."
The Justice Department is examining evidence in the case and testimony from the state trial to determine whether criminal civil rights charges would be brought. However, legal experts say Justice officials would likely be saddled with some of the same challenges that complicated the unsuccessful state case. The key to charging Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, lies in whether evidence exists that he was motivated by racial animosity to kill Martin, who was 17 when he was shot during a fight with Zimmerman in February 2012.
"There is a federal prosecution that theoretically is possible, but I'm sure federal prosecutors would think long and hard, given the state of the evidence, whether they would try to pursue that," said Scott Sundby, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at the University of Miami law school. "You'd have to prove that George Zimmerman was seeking out to commit the crime against Trayvon Martin, specifically because he was African-American."
President Obama won't involve himself in the Justice Department's decision on whether to pursue a civil rights case because it would be inappropriate for the president to express an opinion on how the department deals with Zimmerman, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
Thousands of demonstrators from across the country -- chanting, praying and fighting tears -- protested the jury's decision to clear Zimmerman in the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager, and organizers say they'll try to maintain the momentum with vigils next weekend.
Rallies on Sunday were largely peaceful as demonstrators voiced their support for Martin's family and decried the verdict. Police in Los Angeles said they arrested six people, mostly for failure to disperse, after about 80 protesters gathered in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard and an unlawful assembly was declared. New York police said at least a dozen people were arrested on disorderly conduct charges during a rally in Times Square.
Sunday's demonstrations, held in cities from Florida to Wisconsin, attracted anywhere from a few dozen people to more than a thousand.
At a march and rally in downtown Chicago attended by about 200 people, 73-year-old Maya Miller said the case reminded her of the 1955 slaying of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was murdered by a group of white men while visiting Mississippi. Till's killing galvanized the civil rights movement.
"Fifty-eight years and nothing's changed," Miller said, pausing to join a chant of "Justice for Trayvon, not one more."
In New York City, more than 1,000 people marched into Times Square on Sunday night, zigzagging through Manhattan's streets to avoid police lines. Sign-carrying marchers thronged the busy intersection, chanting "Justice for! Trayvon Martin!" as they made their way from downtown Union Square, blocking traffic for more than an hour.
In San Francisco and in Los Angeles, where police dispersed an earlier protest with beanbag rounds, police closed streets Sunday.
President Obama, Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have urged calm. In Oakland, Calif., during protests that began late Saturday night, some angry demonstrators broke windows, burned U.S. flags, vandalized a police squad car and spray-painted anti-police graffiti.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti urged protesters to "practice peace" after rock- and bottle-throwing. Later, more than 100 officers in riot gear converged and ordered people to disperse. A handful of people were given citations, mostly for blocking a street or jaywalking
Protesters also gathered in Atlanta, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., along with a host of other cities.
Zimmerman, 29, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges Saturday by a jury in Seminole County after claiming he fired his weapon in self-defense only after Martin attacked him. No evidence surfaced in the trial that Zimmerman had a racial bias, and his friends and family have repeatedly denied he harbored racial animosity toward blacks. Florida did not use its own hate crime laws against Zimmerman.
Holder's comments on the case came in a speech to the 51st national convention of the Delta Sigma Theta, the nation's largest African-American sorority, and drew strong applause with his characterization of the shooting: "We are <t40>...<t$> mindful of the pain felt by our nation surrounding the tragic, unnecessary shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., last year."
Martin's family and supporters maintain that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin and decided to follow him, leading to the fatal fight. Supporters of the Justice Department filing civil rights charges say additional evidence could exist in the federal investigation that didn't come up in the state prosecution of Zimmerman, possibly even unknown witnesses.
Several civil rights groups, including the NAACP, are demanding that the Justice Department bring federal charges against Zimmerman. Beyond the exact language of the law itself, the federal probe must navigate between sensitive racial and political issues that arose when Zimmerman initially wasn't charged in Martin's killing.
Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the verdict "a travesty and miscarriage of justice" and urged the Justice Department to bring criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
Zimmerman could get life in prison if charged and convicted under federal hate crime laws.
Several former prosecutors said they'd be surprised if the department were to charge Zimmerman under civil rights laws.
"I think it would be a very steep, if not insurmountable, hill to climb and would be shocked to see any further DOJ involvement," said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S attorney in Miami.
Sundby said the legal system does not always provide an outcome that satisfies people who believe Martin's killing was unjustifiable and morally wrong.
"That's frustrating as a lawyer to say, but sometimes the legal system -- even if there's a sense that an injustice was done -- it doesn't have an answer to that injustice," he said.