Zimmerman’s attorneys did not try to get the case dismissed based on Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which says people who feel threatened can defend themselves with deadly force and are not legally required to flee. Still, the jury was instructed that as long as Zimmerman was not involved in an illegal activity and had a right to be where he was when the shooting occurred, “he had no duty to retreat and the right to stand his ground.”
“These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” Holder told cheering delegates of the annual convention of the NAACP, which is pressing him to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman. “The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent.”
The attorney general, who is the first African American ever to hold that position, drew parallels between his own life and the claims of many here that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin after spotting the teenager walking through his father’s neighborhood in a hooded sweatshirt. Martin was African American. Zimmerman’s father is white, his mother Peruvian.
Holder recalled being pulled over twice by police on the New Jersey Turnpike as a young man and having his car searched, “when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding.” Another time, he said, he was stopped by law enforcement in Georgetown while simply running to catch a movie after dark.
“I was, at the time of that last incident, a federal prosecutor,” Holder said dryly, prompting some in the audience at the Orlando Convention Center to gasp in disgust and others to shake their heads. “We must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments.”
Holder’s comments were the most extensive discussion of the Zimmerman verdict by a member of the Obama administration so far. His personal stories and his denunciation of “stand your ground” laws brought the audience to its feet. But administration officials say that there is little the Justice Department can do to actually change the laws, because they are state, rather than federal, statutes.
When he was a youth growing up in New York, Holder said, his father — an immigrant from Barbados — warned him to act carefully if he was stopped by police. Decades later, after Martin was killed, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer decided he had to have a similar conversation with his own 15-year-old son. “This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down,” he told the delegates.