Obama calls for calm as nation reacts to Zimmerman acquittal
President Barack Obama called for calm Sunday after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, as hundreds of civil rights demonstrators turned out at rallies to condemn racial profiling.
Zimmerman, cleared late Saturday by a Florida jury of six women in the shooting death of the unarmed Martin, still faces public outrage, a possible civil suit and demands for a federal investigation.
In Washington, the U.S. Justice Department said it was evaluating whether it has enough evidence to support prosecution of Zimmerman in federal court after his acquittal in Florida.
Civil rights activists have been pressuring the Obama administration to bring civil rights charges in federal court.
Critics contend Zimmerman wrongly suspected 17-year-old Martin of being a criminal because he was black, making it a civil rights issue. At a rally in New York’s Union Square, more than 200 protesters turned out Sunday, chanting “No justice, no peace.” Some held signs calling for “Justice for Trayvon, Jail for Zimmerman.”
At a rally in Boston, several hundred demonstrators expressed a similar sense of frustration.
“I feel we don’t get justice when it’s needed,” said Kabrina Oliver, 18, a Boston high school student.
Obama, who once said, “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon,” called for a peaceful response to a case that polarized the public from the beginning, raising issues of racial profiling and gun control.
“We are a nation of laws and a jury has spoken,” Obama said in a statement. “I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
The jurors who deliberated for 16 hours over two days found Zimmerman, 29, not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. If found guilty of the most serious charge, Zimmerman could have faced life in prison.
Zimmerman’s lawyers argued he acted in self-defense the night of Feb. 26, 2012, when he and Martin met inside a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford. They accuse civil rights advocates of wrongly injecting the issue of race.
“It was such a shame. The whole case nearly destroyed George from Day One ... . That they put a racism spin on this prosecution just hurt him very deeply,” said John Donnelly, a close friend of Zimmerman who testified in the trial.
Prosecutors had to prove that Zimmerman committed a crime in pursuing and killing Martin and that he did not act in self-defense, a bar they failed to clear with jurors.
In Sanford at the largely black Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, pastor Valarie Houston dedicated a Sunday morning prayer service to Martin.
“I am hurt. I am sad. I am disappointed and my heart is overwhelmed with pains,” Houston said. “I thought in my heart that justice would be served.”
Civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), urged the Justice Department to pursue federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
Jealous said Martin’s family may bring a civil suit against Zimmerman but said federal criminal charges should be filed because evidence suggests race was a factor in the case.
A Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement Sunday the department would determine whether “the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction.”
The jurors, who were sequestered during the three weeks of testimony and remained anonymous by court order, have declined to speak with reporters since handing down the verdict.
Zimmerman, who showed little reaction when the decision was read, was unshackled from a monitoring device he had been wearing while on bail. He previously only left home in a disguise and body armor, his lawyer said.
His brother said he would remain out of public view for some time, but friends said the former neighborhood watch volunteer had recently spoken about the possibility of entering law school.