WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s administration pledged Monday to continue a yearlong investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death and determine whether to file federal charges following a state jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman.
While Obama took the unusual step of speaking publicly about a case in a state court, he stopped short of criticizing the jury that handed down its verdict late Saturday after a trial broadcast on national television.
Instead, he used the case to push for a series of gun control measures that were defeated earlier this year after an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“The president wanted to convey that he felt that the death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy for his family, for a community, but also for the country,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said of the shooting death last year of the black teenager. “And he wanted to express his view . . . that we should ask ourselves if we are doing all that we can to foster compassion and understanding in our communities and to stem the tide of gun violence, as well as how we can prevent future tragedies like this from happening.”
Zimmerman, 29, who has a white father and a Hispanic mother, argued that he was defending himself when he shot Martin, 17, as he was walking home through a gated community in February 2012.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that he is mindful of the “pain felt by our nation surrounding the tragic, unnecessary shooting death” of Martin and that the case provides an opportunity for the nation to speak honestly about “complicated and emotionally charged issues.”
“We are resolved . . . to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents,” Holder said at the anniversary celebration of the predominantly African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta. “And we will never stop working to ensure that – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community – justice must be done.”
Holder and two other Cabinet members – Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan – will speak Tuesday at the NAACP conference in Orlando, not far from Sanford where the shooting took place. They are expected to speak about gun violence.
Zimmerman’s acquittal has led to scattered demonstrations across the nation and questions from civil rights organizations. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed an NAACP petition calling on the Justice Department to launch a civil rights investigation, while thousands have signed a White House petition asking Holder to file charges against Zimmerman.
On Capitol Hill, few lawmakers weighed in on the case beyond the head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, told MSNBC that she was “disheartened and troubled” by the verdict. “They put a young black boy on trial for being in his own neighborhood, walking home from the store,” she said.
The four leaders – House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. – have been uncharacteristically quiet. In answer to a question Sunday on NBC, Reid said he accepted the verdict but planned to take a closer look at Florida’s gun laws.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland mentioned the case briefly when delivering opening remarks at the NAACP conference.
“We must come together as a nation to learn from the tragedy of his death and take steps to ensure that every single life is equally cherished and protected under our laws,” he said.
Back in Washington, Holder said his department will “continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law.”
Carney said Obama would not get involved in the Justice Department investigation and declined to say whether Obama is feeling pressure to weigh in.
“This is a decision made by the Justice Department, by career prosecutors, and all questions about how that process is undertaken should be directed there,” he said. “And that is not something the president involves himself in.”
Last year, after Martin’s death but before Zimmerman was charged, Obama weighed in on the case with the most personal of statements. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” he said when asked about the case in the Rose Garden in March 2012.
Obama issued another statement this weekend, calling on every American to undergo a period of "calm reflection" after the verdict was announced.
Carney declined to say whether Obama had spoken to Martin’s family this weekend.