President Barack Obama said the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida struck a personal chord and he called for a full investigation by federal, state and local authorities.
“I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” Obama said today at the White House. “And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
The Justice Department said it has opened a civil rights probe into the Feb. 26 slaying of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Florida. A neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, has told police that he shot Martin in self-defense.
Obama’s remarks were his first public comment on the shooting, which has generated national media coverage and public calls for an investigation into the killing and the initial police response.
Answering a shouted question at the end of a Rose Garden event introducing his nominee for president of the World Bank, Obama said he wouldn’t comment directly on the investigation. Still, he made clear that the incident touched him personally, and he directed part of his message to Martin’s parents.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said.
Obama said the killing should prompt “some soul-searching” in the nation.
“Every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together -- federal, state and local -- to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened,” he said.
Obama didn’t address the initial police investigation, the circumstances of the shooting or the Florida law known as Stand Your Ground that gives someone who feels threatened greater latitude to use deadly force outside a home. He said he didn’t want his remarks to impair the investigation.
Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination who was campaigning in Louisiana before tomorrow’s primary, said it’s “entirely appropriate” for a grand jury to be investigating.
“The shooting of Trayvon is a terrible tragedy, unnecessary, uncalled for, and inexplicable at this point,” Romney said. “Our hearts go out to his family, his loved ones, his friends. This shouldn’t have happened.”
Martin’s parents and their lawyer met yesterday in Florida with Justice Department officials.
Push for Investigation
Fourteen Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee sent a letter yesterday to Attorney General Eric Holder asking that he “explore the applicability” of the hate-crime statute and other federal laws.
The Justice Department won’t comment on whether it is pursuing the shooting as a hate crime, Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general who oversees the department’s civil rights division, said in a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We’re in the fact-gathering stage,” he said.
The Florida shooting occurred when Martin was walking through a residential neighborhood after buying iced tea and Skittles at a convenience store, Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Martin family, said at a March 20 news conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Zimmerman was identified as a white male in a Feb. 27 Sanford Police Department report posted on the city’s website. His father, Robert Zimmerman, described him as “a Spanish-speaking minority” in a March 15 letter to the Orlando Sentinel.
“He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever,” Robert Zimmerman said in the letter.
The Sanford police department investigated the case and forwarded its findings to local prosecutors. Police didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Zimmerman at the scene, City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. said in a statement.
Zimmerman’s statement that he acted in self-defense wasn’t contradicted by evidence available to the officers on the scene and they are prohibited by Florida statute from making an arrest under those circumstances, according to a report by Bonaparte posted on the city’s website.
Zimmerman had a state permit to carry a concealed weapon and was within the law to have the handgun, a 9mm semiautomatic, with him at the time. Bonaparte writes in the report that Zimmerman told authorities he was on a personal errand when he encountered Martin.
“We are confident that our investigative team conducted a quality investigation and if needed we welcome any independent review,” the Sanford Police Department said in a March 13 statement.