Top Democrats and civil rights leaders on Sunday called on the Justice Department to examine bringing federal charges against George Zimmerman, just hours after a Florida jury acquitted him in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager.
“I think the Justice Department is going to take a look at this,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press," as the fallout from the Zimmerman verdict dominated the nation’s attention on Sunday.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous led calls from civil rights groups for federal action, circulating a petition late Saturday and telling CNN’s “State of the Union” that his group already spoken to top Justice officials.
“The trial happened, the verdict came in, that does not exhaust the legal options of his family and the bigger community issue of civil rights,” the activist Al Sharpton said on "Meet the Press."
Following those statements and others, the Justice Department released a statement Sunday afternoon that said that federal officials were examining both the evidence from the state trial and their own existing investigation.
“Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction,” Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in the statement.
Those and other responses to the verdict, from all across the political spectrum, underscored that Washington policymakers appeared as divided on the Zimmerman trial as the country at-large.
The Saturday night verdict in Sanford, Fla. prompted protests around the country, and responses that proved that emotions were still raw more than a year after Martin was killed in February 2012.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot Martin, an unarmed black teenager after following him as he left a convenience store. Zimmerman had said Martin was acting suspiciously and that he had shot him in self-defense during an altercation.
The shooting renewed a national debate over racial profiling, with President Obama addressing the controversy.
Obama said publicly last year that “if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.”
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) wore a hoodie similar to what Martin was wearing on the night he was killed, though both Obama and congressional Democrats had also taken a hands-off approach to the case in recent months.
On Sunday, Obama called Martin’s death “a tragedy,” but also asked for calm.
“We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this,” Obama said in a statement. “As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”
Other Democrats had similar responses: Rep. Karen Bass (Calif.) called the verdict “devastating,” while Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) said it was a travesty that the killing of an unarmed teenager walking home would go unpunished.
Some Democrats also called for repealing Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows people who are afraid for their lives greater latitude to respond with deadly force.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Calif.) warned that the ruling set a dangerous precedent for such state laws.
“You empower individual citizens to basically take the law into their own hands,” said Grijalva, criticizing such measures.
Fattah and Grijalva said they backed efforts by the Justice Department to investigate the evidence in the case.
But even some Democrats appearing on Sunday shows said Attorney General Eric Holder had a tough call when it came to filing potential civil rights charges.
The decision will be a difficult one for the nation’s first black attorney general, following a year in which he clashed with congressional Republicans and was held in contempt by the House.
“They’re going to have to make that decision. It’ll be a tough one,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a former prosecutor.
Many GOP lawmakers and strategists said that, at the very least, the jury made the right call in acquitting Zimmerman, arguing that the prosecution had failed to prove its case.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and former President George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove also accused President Obama of politicizing Martin’s killing, helping to spark the media furor and trial.
“The evidence didn’t support prosecution, and the Justice Department engaged in this, the president engaged in this and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law-and-order,” King said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Rove said that Obama’s handling of the controversy had divided the nation and urged that the DOJ close the matter after the jury’s verdict.
“We need a president to bring us together, not rip us apart,” Rove said, also on Fox. “And I hope the Justice Department does not respond to the ill-advised recommendation of the NAACP to continue to this controversy.”
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Republican, said that the verdict proved that the U.S. judicial system — which he called the best in the world — was color-blind.
But Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Martin’s family, pushed back on that assertion — responding directly to one of Zimmerman’s lawyers, who said after the verdict that his client would have never been charged if he was black.
“Nobody in America worries that black men won't be convicted in court,” Crump said on ABC. “I would challenge anybody to go to courts all over America, just sit in the back and watch how the justice system plays out when it comes to black males.”
Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), a one-time state attorney general and prosecutor, agreed with Perry that the U.S. judicial system was the best in the world, but added that “the judicial system is not perfect. And in this case it has failed.”
Spitzer said the Justice Department had a lot to think about it as it mulled federal charges and cautioned against leaving the impression that Zimmerman was facing “double jeopardy.”
“It's in a very dicey position because there has been a criminal case,” Spitzer said. “Double jeopardy is a fundamental principle in our American judicial system, as it should be. And so it's going to be hard for them to come back at the defendant.”
Even with Saturday’s acquittal, the Zimmerman case will likely resonate for some time.
In addition to potential federal charges, a lawyer for Martin’s family would not rule out a potential civil suit.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said the public was likely to engage in a separate moral debate over Zimmerman’s actions even as the Justice Department weighed its next step.
“We'll be talking about this case for a long time to come, because they have to decide on the facts of the case,” said Cole on ABC’s “This Week.” “But there are moral dimensions beyond the case that obviously we have to come to grips with.”
This story was last updated at 5:42 p.m.