WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called the killing of Trayvon Martin a "tragedy that we are all struggling to understand," and said that the Justice Department will act decisively if it finds evidence that the teen's civil rights were criminally violated.
"Many of you are greatly -- and rightly -- concerned about the recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young man whose future has been lost to the ages," said Holder during the opening session of the Rev. Al Sharpton's annual National Action Network convention. "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."
Holder said in recent weeks that Tom Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, and other Justice Department officials have gone to Sanford, Fla., where Martin's killing occurred on February 26, to meet with Martin's family, local police and community leaders.
"In all of these discussions we are listening closely to concerns, and we're emphasizing that the department will conduct a thorough and independent review of the evidence," Holder said to applause and shouts from the audience at the Washington Convention Center.
Martin's killing by George Zimmerman, 28, who told police that he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense, has become a national flashpoint. Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged in the case, as police have said they could not find enough evidence to refute Zimmerman's claim of self-defense.
The Sanford Police Department has been criticized for its handling of the investigation, particularly for the way it handled potential evidence in the case, as well as its interviews with witnesses. Legal experts have said that crucial errors made during the initial investigation could compromise a prosecution if charges are eventually brought against Zimmerman.
The investigation is now in the hands of a special prosecutor, Angela B. Corey, who late Tuesday night set a 72-hour timeline for whether or not Zimmerman will face charges. The announcement came just hours after two of Zimmerman's attorneys said they would no longer be representing him. They said that they'd lost contact with Zimmerman, and that he had disregarded their advice by speaking with cable news pundit Sean Hannity and reaching out directly to Corey's office.
"He's gone on his own," said Craig Sonner, one of his attorneys, during a press conference outside the Seminole County Courthouse on Tuesday. "I'm not sure what he's doing or who he's talking to, but at this point we're withdrawing as counsel. If he wants us to come back as counsel, he will contact us."
Holder said that while he can not disclose any details of the Justice Department's investigation into the case, he allowed the tragedy of Maritn’s death is cause for a national conversation.
"In recent weeks in the wake of a tragedy that we are struggling to understand, we have called not just for answers and for justice, but also for civility and unity and for a national discourse that is productive, respectful and worthy of both our forbearers and our children," he said.
After Holder's brief address, Glenn E. Martin of the Fortune Society, a New York-based group that helps formerly incarcerated people re-enter society, sat on a panel about the state of the criminal justice system in America, during which he cited Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman as symbols in a larger, ailing social justice system.
"Zimmerman ain't the only Zimmerman," Martin said. "He represents a disease ... and the very system we are asking to prosecute him has proven itself to be equally racist in its application of the law."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of Tom Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights.
"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/23/obama-trayvon-martin_n_1375083.html" target="_hplink">President Obama said</a>. "I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."
Newt Gingrich <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/23/newt-gingrich-trayvon-martin_n_1375246.html?1332517208" target="_hplink">told Piers Morgan</a> that the Trayvon Martin case was tragic, and that he didn't believe the shooting would be covered by Florida's Stand Your Ground law. "I think Americans can recognize that while this is a tragedy -- and it is a tragedy -- that we're going to relentlessly seek justice, and I think that's the right thing to do," Gingrich said. Asked about the <a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jGvt4B1k3oYa22McRcMZW59i8b0w?docId=c220cf9300364978aaf2b5e9ed3ca1b4" target="_hplink">Stand Your Ground</a> law, he said, "The young man apparently was not following the person who's being investigated. Apparently, the shooter was following the young man. That's not a stand your own ground, that's a chase the other person into their ground. And I think you're going to find the law, as interpreted normally, doesn't apply to this case."
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) condemned the killing of Trayvon Martin, but cautioned against making the case a racial issue. Below, his full statement <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/allen-west-trayvon-martin_n_1373919.html" target="_hplink">as posted on Facebook</a>: <blockquote>I have sat back and allowed myself time to assess the current episode revealing itself in Sanford, Florida involving the shooting of 17-year-old Treyvon Martin. First of all, if all that has been reported is accurate, the Sanford Police Chief should be relieved of his duties due to what appears to be a mishandling of this shooting in its early stages. The US Navy SEALS identified Osama Bin Laden within hours, while this young man laid on a morgue slab for three days. The shooter, Mr Zimmerman, should have been held in custody and certainly should not be walking free, still having a concealed weapons carry permit. From my reading, it seems this young man was pursued and there was no probable cause to engage him, certainly not pursue and shoot him....against the direction of the 911 responder. Let's all be appalled at this instance not because of race, but because a young American man has lost his life, seemingly, for no reason. I have signed a letter supporting a DOJ investigation. I am not heading to Sanford to shout and scream, because we need the responsible entities and agencies to handle this situation from this point without media bias or undue political influences. This is an outrage.</blockquote>
"What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy. There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity," <a href="http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/republican-hopefuls-react-to-trayvon-martin-killing/" target="_hplink">Mitt Romney said</a> in a statement.
Rick Santorum said the shooting was "horrible" and a "chilling example of the horrible decisions made by people in this process." "Stand Your Ground is not doing what this man did," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120323/us-santorum-neighborhood-watch/" target="_hplink">Santorum said</a>, adding that he believes the Justice Department should leave the matter to local and state authorities.
Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/trayvon-martin-state-attorney_n_1374206.html" target="_hplink">said</a> a state task force would review Florida's Stand Your Ground law and recommend changes "so that we might help avoid such tragedies in the future."
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) denounced shooter George Zimmerman as "a renegade wannabe policeman neighborhood watchman." "Mr. Speaker, I am tired of burying young black boys," Wilson said <a href="http://blogs.browardpalmbeach.com/pulp/2012/03/frederica_wilson_trayvon_martin.php" target="_hplink">during a speech</a> on the House floor. "I am tired of watching them suffer at the hands of those who fear them and despise them. I am tired of comforting mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters and brothers after such unnecessary, heinous crimes of violence."
"Well, first of all, it's a great tragedy," Condoleezza Rice <a href="http://video.msnbc.msn.com/mitchell-reports/46810837/#46810837" target="_hplink">told Andrea Mitchell</a>. "This young man has been deprived of life and that's an enormous tragedy. And we all should have prayers and for his family and for those who are left behind. So it's a great tragedy. That's the first thing to say. Secondly, I've always said that obviously, we are not a race blind society. We aspire to be one, we work toward it, we've gotten better, but we are not yet. But I'm not going to comment on the legal aspects of this case because as I understand it, the Justice Department is looking into it, local authorities are looking into it, and I certainly hope that justice will be done here and due process accorded. But I'm not going to comment on the legal aspects of this. I'm not competent to do so."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-congress/2012/03/mcconnell-trayvon-martin-shooting-incredible-tragedy-118450.html" target="_hplink">called the shooting</a> an "incredible tragedy," but declined to comment on the "Stand Your Ground" law. "It is an incredible tragedy of huge proportions," he said. "I'm glad it's being investigated and we'll take a look at it as the investigation moves along."
"The killing of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy, and nothing will bring him back," Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wrote in a statement. "But there remain unanswered questions surrounding his death, and I applaud Attorney General Eric Holder for opening an investigation. Trayvon and his family deserve nothing less, and my thoughts are with them in this unimaginably difficult time. Any single incident where an unarmed civilian is gunned down is one too many, but sadly, similar incidents have occurred in other states, including in Nevada. I trust the Justice Department and law enforcement at all levels will provide the justice that Trayvon's loved ones and our country deserve."