ORLANDO, Fla.— In perhaps his starkest terms yet, Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday condemned the controversial stand your ground laws that initially prevented police from arresting George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“We must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent,” Holder told an audience at the NAACP national convention in Orlando.
“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense,” he said. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken.” Holder went further suggesting that they can perhaps encourage “violent situations to escalate in public. Such laws undermine public safety.”
Holder said the laws have resulted in a long list of tragedies that “unfortunately has victimized too many who are innocent.”
Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old in a gated community in Sanford, about 30 miles north of Orlando. Zimmerman claimed he shot the teen in self-defense after Martin attacked him.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman citing the state’s Stand Your Ground laws which give wide discretion in the use of deadly force. Zimmerman was arrested 44 days after the shooting and charged with second-degree murder. The shooting and Zimmerman’s slow arrest sparked national outrage. On Saturday, a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of all charges. Zimmerman did not invoke the Stand Your Ground law in his defense.
In the months after Martin’s death, Gov. Rick Scott formed a state-wide panel to examine the stand your ground laws, which were passed in 2005 by a vast majority, including state Democrats and Republicans. The panel later urged no major changes to the law.
Holder strong statement comes as the NAACP and other groups are pushing the Justice Department to investigate whether Zimmerman may have committed any civil rights abuses against Martin. In the weeks after Martin’s death in February, 2012, the department opened an investigation but stepped aside to allow state and local law enforcement officials to take the lead.
“I know the NAACP and its members are deeply and rightly concerned about this case,” he said. “This afternoon I want to assure you of two things. I am concerned about his case. And as we confirmed last spring the Justice Department has an open investigation into it.”
Following Holder’s speech, NAACP President Ben Jealous said he was hopeful and encouraged by Holders comments about the investigation into Martin’s death and the condemnation of stand your ground laws, both issues the NAACP has championed.
“Investigating the circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death and challenging those who would suppress the vote are top priorities for the U. S. Department of justice, we heard what we were hoping to hear today.”