By Mike Lillis - 03/28/12 12:00 AM EDT
The debate over the slaying of a Florida teenager rumbled onto Capitol Hill on Tuesday, with the parents of Trayvon Martin suggesting racial profiling was responsible for their son’s death.
Standing amid a sea of supporters, a scrum of reporters and the clamor of clicking cameras, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin asked House Democrats to use Martin’s death as an opportunity to prevent similar incidents.
“A lot of people can relate to our situation, and it breaks their heart just like it breaks mine,” Fulton said.
Tracy Martin thanked “everyone who is holding the legacy of Trayvon and making sure that he did not indeed die in vain.”
“He’s sadly missed and we’ll continue to fight for justice for him,” Martin said.
Martin, 17, was killed last month by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Neighborhood Watchman who trailed Martin from his car as he walked through a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Zimmerman says he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen punched him in the nose and smashed his head into the pavement — an account corroborated by witnesses, according to reports citing local authorities.
Zimmerman’s gun was confiscated, but he was not arrested. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law permits deadly force in some cases of self-defense.
The case has fueled an outcry from civil-rights advocates and sparked a public debate over racial profiling, gun laws and vigilantism that has moved all the way to Capitol Hill.
Martin was African-American, and Zimmerman of Latino descent. Some, including Martin’s parents, have suggested a racial motive was at play in the killing.
Craig Sonner, Zimmerman’s attorney, has denied that race played any role in the shooting.
“I don’t believe there is any racial motivation on behalf of George Zimmerman ... this was not a racial issue in what happened that day,” Sonner said on CBS’s “This Morning.”
But Benjamin Crump, a lawyer representing the Martin family, said there was no doubt Martin was targeted because of his race.
“We honestly believe that Trayvon Martin is dead today because he was racially profiled,” Crump said. “Because of that, this escalated, and it led to an altercation where George Zimmerman … killed … a 17-year-old, unarmed teen who only had a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced-tea can.”
The Democrats in attendance proved a sympathetic audience, with a long list of lawmakers calling for Zimmerman’s arrest and an investigation into Sanford’s police department.
“If you review the case, every aspect of it has been handled very poorly,” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), who represents the town of Sanford. “I don’t know whether it’s incompetence, or whether it’s a cover-up, or all of the above. But we have got to make sure that what has happened in Sanford, with the police department and how they have handled this situation, never happens again in the United States.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) echoed that message. “I, too, would like to see Mr. Zimmerman arrested,” she said. “I did not say convicted — you’re innocent until proven guilty under this law — but arrested so that peace will come to these parents.”
Inside the hearing room, bodies were pressed against the walls, with some reporters standing on chairs in an attempt to see Fulton and Martin over the crowd. Ernest Gideon Green, a member of the Little Rock Nine that integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957, sat in the front row.
Outside, a line of supporters — many of them African-American teenagers — snaked down a long corridor of the Rayburn House Office Building, waiting for a space to clear and a chance to enter. A throng of TV reporters interviewed the students.
Although Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, had invited all members of the panel to join the forum, no Republicans attended. The Democrats are pushing a Conyers bill designed to rein in racial profiling in the nation’s state and federal law-enforcement agencies.
The office of Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Leaders in both parties expressed support Tuesday for the Justice Department’s investigation of the shooting.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) characterized the episode as a “tragedy” and the investigation as “appropriate.”
“Our hearts go out to his family over this tragedy, and clearly what happened is in fact a tragedy,” Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a news conference Tuesday morning. “It’s being investigated by state and federal officials, which I think is appropriate, and I think I’ll leave it at that.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) weighed in as well, saying Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is “something that the Justice Department should look into.”
“They’re looking into it,” Reid said, “and I am very, very grateful that they’re doing that.”
President Obama stepped into the debate Friday, saying it’s “imperative” that investigators “figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the appropriate role of Congress is to wait and see what the various investigations turn up. He said the combination of the Republican-controlled House and the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) means Congress likely won’t examine the appropriateness of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
“We should, but we won’t,” Grijalva said. “I’m surprised the NRA’s even letting some of us think about it.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Congress is in wait-and-see mode.
“We don’t know the facts, but it is a tragedy when any young person loses their life in … this nature,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “It is absolutely essential that we get to the bottom of what happened here so that justice is done.”