WASHINGTON (AFP) – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has urged a rethink of “stand-your-ground” self-defense laws following the acquittal of a neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in Florida.
Addressing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Holder acknowledged the anger stirred by the racially-laced trial of George Zimmerman, found not guilty Saturday of murdering Trayvon Martin.
“Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Holder said on Tuesday.
“These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the ‘if’ is important — no safe retreat is available.”
Zimmerman’s trial lawyers did not explicitly invoke Florida’s stand-your-ground law, arguing instead that he acted in self-defense in a confrontation with Martin in February last year.
But the case has stirred up controversy around such laws, present in some 30 states, which assert that citizens can use lethal force — rather than retreat — if they sense their lives are threatened, wherever they might be.
The trial’s outcome has reverberated this week with a string of protests around the country and one juror, known as B-37, appearing on television to discuss the case. Four other jurors late Tuesday, however, issued a statement seeking privacy.
Holder said earlier that “by allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public,” stand-your-ground laws undermine public safety.
“The list of resulting tragedies is long and unfortunately has victimized too many who are innocent,” Holder added.
Critics of the verdict from the six-woman and mostly white jury argue that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin — who had no criminal record — and was able to kill him with impunity because of a biased criminal justice system.
Holder, who spoke at the NAACP national meeting in Orlando, Florida, not far from where Martin died, remained non-committal on whether the Justice Department might pursue Zimmerman on civil rights grounds, noting that “an open investigation” into the case was ongoing.
Pressure grew Tuesday for Zimmerman to face civil proceedings, with African-American faith leaders led by civil rights firebrand Reverend Al Sharpton announcing protest rallies Saturday in more than 100 cities.
“People all over the country will gather to show that we are not having a two-or three-day anger fit,” Sharpton told reporters outside Justice Department headquarters in Washington. “This is a social movement for justice.”
Pop music icon Stevie Wonder, at a weekend concert in Canada, declared he would refuse to perform in Florida or any other state with a stand-your-ground law, the Hollywood Reporter showbiz industry journal said.
In Los Angeles, police chief Charlie Beck vowed Tuesday to clamp down harder on protests over the outcome of the Martin trial, after 14 people were arrested on a second night of violence.
In Houston, police on horseback watched from the sidelines Tuesday as protesters marched outside the city’s downtown federal court house, the Houston Chronicle newspaper reported on its website.
Juror B-37 meanwhile scrapped controversial plans to write a book about the Zimmerman trial, explaining Tuesday that she had not been aware of how deeply it had aroused passions.
“I realize it was necessary for our jury to be sequestered in order to protest our verdict from unfair outside influence, but that isolation shielded me from the depth of pain that exists among the general public over every aspect of this case,” said the woman.
The four jurors who appealed to the media to leave them alone said in a joint statement that B-37’s views “were her own, and not in any way representative,” of theirs, noting that “we did not invite this type of attention into our lives.”
“Serving on this jury has been a highly emotional and physically draining experience for each of us,” the statement added.
“The death of a teenager weighed heavily on our hearts but in the end we did what the law required us to do.”
Photo Credit: AFP/Tim Boyles