By Mike Lillis - 07/13/13 10:00 AM EDT
The Trayvon Martin saga has disappeared on Capitol Hill even as the trial of his killer captivates the nation.
But 16 months later, as the trial of George Zimmerman reaches an end, those same lawmakers have remained notably silent. Indeed, the CBC has issued no public statements on the proceedings, and President Obama – who said last year, “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon” – is also holding his tongue.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday said it would be “a mistake” for the president to weigh in on the case before the verdict is reached.
“This is, you know, a jury in Florida in the United States that's fulfilling its function,” he said. “I wouldn't want to characterize our views about it or the president's views about it because it's an ongoing trial.”
That message is being echoed by members of the CBC.
Rep. Bobby Rush, for instance, created headlines last year when he was removed from the House floor for wearing a hoodie like the one Martin had worn the night he was killed. Since the trial began, however, the Illinois Democrat has been much more reticent.
“Congressman Rush is reserving comment until the verdict,” spokeswoman Debra Johnson said Friday in an email.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, was another vocal critic of the way the Martin killing was handled. In the weeks after the shooting, Conyers held a forum with the panel's Democrats to examine racial profiling in America – a gathering that grew into a media circus upon the arrival of Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton.
Conyers has also declined to weigh in on the trial.
“He (and I imagine others) did not want to interfere with court proceedings,” Conyers spokesman Andrew Schreiber said Friday in a brief email.
Much of the silence can be attributed to the simple fact that the lawmakers already got much of what they were asking for.
The initial uproar occurred not only because Martin was shot and killed, but because Zimmerman was not immediately charged with any crime.
Indeed, one of the first congressional responses came in March of 2012, when then-CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Florida Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson – all CBC members – introduced a resolution referring to Martin's killing as a “crime” and condemning “the inconceivable fact that his killer remains free.”
Cleaver this week said that, once Zimmerman was arrested, the responsibility shifted from Congress to the courts.
“Last year, as the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, we introduced a resolution calling for an investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin. The investigation has transpired and the courts are handling this matter," Cleaver said Friday in an email. “I am hopeful that the jury will reach a decision based on the evidence before them, as is their task. Because we are lawmakers, we must respect the process of our justice system.”
Wilson, who represents the district where Martin lived, delivered a similar message.
“I got involved because Trayvon Martin was a high school student who lived in my district, and George Zimmerman was a free man for 46 days before he was arrested," she said Friday in an email. "That is what caused the rancor in Washington."
Wilson said the police initially leaned too heavily on Zimmerman's one-sided account, and decried the depictions of Martin as "a thug."
"I had to react," she said, adding, "I draw some comfort knowing that the judicial system is at work on Trayvon’s behalf."
Zimmerman, a then-28-year-old neighborhood watchman, shot and killed Martin, 17, on the rainy night of Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman had trailed Martin in his car as the teenager walked through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., where Zimmerman lived and Martin was visiting his father.
Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense after Martin punched him in the nose and smashed his head into the ground.
Zimmerman's gun was confiscated but he was not initially arrested, fueling an outcry from civil-rights advocates and sparking a public debate over racial profiling, gun laws and vigilantism that moved all the way to Capitol Hill. The public protests eventually caught the ear of Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the case, leading to Zimmerman's arrest several weeks later.
Both the defense and the prosecution presented their closing arguments on Friday, and the case now rests with the jury, which could pass down a verdict at any time.
Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and could face a life sentence if convicted. The jury has been instructed that, if it decides against the second-degree murder charge, it must also consider whether Zimmerman was guilty of lesser crimes, including manslaughter.
--Amie Parnes contributed to this report.