Attorney General Eric Holder Addresses Trayvon Martin Shooting, Criticizes Stand-Your-Ground Laws
Attorney General Eric Holder strongly condemned "Stand Your Ground" laws today in a speech that became intensely personal at times and addressed the shooting of Trayvon Martin and Saturday's acquittal of George Zimmerman.
At the NAACP convention in Orlando, Fla., Holder, the first black attorney general, said of the "Stand Your Ground" laws that it is "time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods."
"These laws try to fix something that was never broken," Holder said at the Orange County Convention Center. "There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if - and the 'if' is important - no safe retreat is available. But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely."
"By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety," he said.
"The list of resulting tragedies is long and - unfortunately - has victimized too many who are innocent," Holder said. "It is our collective obligation - we must stand our ground - to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent."
"Stand Your Ground" laws, which have passed in more than 30 states including Florida, allow people to defend themselves with deadly force, rather than retreating from the situation if they feel that they are in danger.
The killing of Martin and Zimmerman's acquittal has rippled through the NAACP convention, which was held just 30 miles from Sanford, Fla. On Monday, Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney, called for the federal government to take up the cause and for the Department of Justice to file charges against Zimmerman
"It seems like we are still fighting the fight that they fought so many years ago that we thought we won, but yet again here we are again crying out for legal justice," Crump said. "It is going to be very important that we remain vocal and vigilant as we ask the federal government to get involved in this investigation because if we are not vocal and vigilant, I can tell you Trayvon's death will be swept under the rug."
The NAACP also announced today that its online petition urging the DOJ to file charges against Zimmerman reached 1 million signatures in the two and half days since the verdict was announced Saturday evening.
Holder said he was "concerned about the case" and confirmed the DOJ is investigating and "will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law."
"While that inquiry is ongoing, I can promise that the Department of Justice will consider all available information before determining what action to take," Holder said. "We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that - in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community - justice must be done."
The Department of Justice has been conducting its own investigation into whether the shooting was motivated by racial pretense, which means Zimmerman could be charged with a federal hate crime even though he was acquitted in state court.
Zimmerman, 29, was accused of second-degree murder for shooting Martin, 17, Feb. 26, 2012, inside a Sanford, Fla., gated subdivision where Martin's father lived. While Zimmerman admitted to shooting the unarmed teenager, he has 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 in the slaying of the unarmed black teen. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is originally from Peru. He 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 Saturday, after deliberating for more than 16 hours in two days.
Holder said the "same issues" that are at the core of the case drove his own father to sit down with him to talk "about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted. I'm sure my father felt certain - at the time - that my parents' generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children."
He said the news of Martin's death "reminded" him of his father's words as well as experiences he himself went through as a young man, recounting how he was "pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I'm sure I wasn't speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor."
He said the 17-year-old's death also caused him to sit down with his own 15-year-old-son, as his father had with him, noting "this was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down."
"But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy," Holder said. "I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways."
Holder also urged calm in the wake of the verdict, praising those protests that have been peaceful since the decision Saturday night.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also addressed the conference, speaking before Holder, and she too brought up the case, calling Martin's death a "tragedy for his family and his community, but it's also a tragedy for our country."
"But so are the tragedies of all the children we have lost because of gun violence before and since Trayvon was killed each and every day," Sebelius said. "Now we pray for the Martin family and respect their call for calm reflection."
ABC News' Mike Levine and Garrett Bruno contributed to this report.