Attorney General Eric Holder faces a crucial decision on whether to press federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, after the neighborhood watchman was acquitted Saturday in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The NAACP and other leading civil rights groups are pressing for Holder to open a federal case against Zimmerman, after he was found not guilty on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges by a Florida jury.
The public pressure leaves Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, facing a difficult decision on a controversial case that has grabbed the nation’s attention and sparked renewed debate about racial profiling.
In a statement from NAACP President Ben Jealous, the civil rights group said they were “not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.”
“The most fundamental of civil rights—the right to life—was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation,” said the group in a petition unveiled Saturday night. “Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.”
On CNN Sunday, civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson also demanded that the Justice Department “intervene” and “take this to another level.”
Many Democratic lawmakers are also joining those calls, with Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) tweeting a message from Jealous asking for the DOJ to act.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) tweeted he was “deeply saddened” by the verdict, but was “pleased that DOJ is continuing to evaluate evidence.”
The DOJ launched a review of the shooting earlier this year and Holder said that they would take proper action if they had evidence of a civil rights crime.
“If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action, and at every step, the facts and law will guide us forward,” said Holder in a speech in April to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
But Holder had cautioned in subsequent remarks that the DOJ faces a “very high barrier” when seeking to bring federal criminal charges in such cases.
The decision to act against Zimmerman after a jury acquitted him could also put Holder again at odds with Republican lawmakers, with whom he has had a contentious relationship.
The House voted him in contempt last year after he failed to turn over documents subpoenaed in a probe of the ATF’s botched gun-tracking program, Operation Fast and Furious.
Holder has also faced congressional anger over the DOJ’s probe of journalists over national security leaks, including questions about whether he lied when testifying before Congress that he was unaware of efforts to prosecute reporters.
Holder spoke in April about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin personally, saying that “as a parent, I reacted to it.”
“This is a pain that no parent should have to endure. The notion of having to bury a child is something that is, I think in some ways for a parent, the ultimate pain,” Holder said.
“The primary responsibility we have in the Justice Department is to support the state in its ongoing investigation, to do our own thorough and parallel investigation which we are in the process of doing and try to resolve this matter in as fair and complete a way and as quickly as we can.”