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Obama Calls For Calm In Wake Of George Zimmerman Verdict

By: CBS News Email
By: CBS News Email

CBS Web Copy

After a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin on Saturday evening, reaction from political figures and interest groups poured in on Sunday, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pushing for the Department of Justice to open a federal civil rights probe to examine the racial undertones of the incident, and political figures on both sides of the aisle offering their two cents on a case that has captured the nation's attention.

Democrats have called the outcome a miscarriage of justice. President Obama issued a statement on Sunday calling the case a "tragedy."

"I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher," he said. "But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son."

Despite the president's call for calm, Republicans have accused him of politicizing the incident, pointing to the president's declaration in March 2012 that, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

Martin, a 17-year-old African American teenager, was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, 29, last year in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. After nearly three weeks of testimony, a jury found Zimmerman, who is half Hispanic, not guilty of second-degree murder and the lesser charge of manslaughter.

The verdict prompted outrage from civil rights groups, who believe the Zimmerman case perfectly exemplified the racial biases in the American criminal justice system.

"It was about race from the very beginning," said Georgetown University's Michael Eric Dyson on "Face the Nation." "It was a racial motivation of, it appears, of George Zimmerman when he said, 'These people get away. They always get away.'"

"We don't have to be Einstein to deduce from that particular-- you know, assertion of his that...he got a fear of and suspicion of African American youth," he added.

The next step, NAACP President Ben Jealous said, is to "focus on ensuring that our justice system continues its course."

"There may be a civil action brought by the family, but there should definitely be criminal charges brought by [the Department of Justice]," he said. "And we have asked D.O.J. to continue their investigation. They are indeed continuing, and we hope that once everything that's happened that can happen here in Florida...that D.O.J. will act and will hold Mr. Zimmerman accountable for what he has done."

To substantiate a hate crime charge, Jealous explained, the government must "show that race was a factor in [Zimmerman's] decision making. And there seems to be plenty of evidence that suggests that race may have been a factor. He called 9-1-1 a lot about young Black men that he suspected of being dangerous."

Dyson suggested the composition of the jury - six women, only one of whom was not white - may also be an issue worth examining.

Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, disagreed with the implication that race played a factor in the outcome of the case, telling CNN's "State of the Union," "I think our justice system is colorblind."

"You had two very capable teams laying out the evidence and the jury made the decision," he said. "Though there may be people on either side of this who don't agree with how it came out, we have the very best judicial system."

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, went a step further, telling "Fox News Sunday" that Zimmerman should never have been prosecuted to begin with.

"Well, from what I have seen of the evidence, I would say" Zimmerman should not have faced prosecution, King said. "I regret that this all happened. I'm sorry that it was turned into a race issue by the media. And otherwise, it would have been tried or not tried, depending on the laws and the language that was there."

King also accused the President Obama and the Department of Justice of politicizing the case. "The Justice Department engaged in this, the president engaged in this and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law and order."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he believes the "Justice Department's going to take a look at this."

"This isn't over with," he explained, saying he supports the American justice system, even if he "may feel differently" about the outcome of the case.

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who is now running for New York City comptroller, said on ABC's "This Week" that it's a "dicey position for the Justice Department to step in."

"Double jeopardy is a fundamental principle in our American judicial system, as it should be," he explained, "and so it's going to be hard for them to come back at the defendant."

Still, Spitzer said he has no doubt the system failed in the Zimmerman case.

"This is a failure of justice, I don't think there's any other way to view it. The judicial system is not perfect. And in this case it has failed," he said. "It is still the best system in the world, bar none...The jury system is what we have to rely upon, but in this case, it failed."

Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., agreed that the system failed. "I think that there's an innocent boy dead," he said on CNN. "A person was asked not to follow him, and he took a gun and killed him. And yes, I think that there should be been a punishment for that."

"I think justice will be done, eventually," he added. "There's a situation right now where a jury has ruled, but I don't think that we've seen the end of this."

Fattah said he was particularly disturbed by the fact that Zimmerman "will get his gun back."

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., when asked whether he believes the justice system is racially biased, left no room for confusion.

"Yes," he said on CNN. "I think you just have to look at incarceration rates, who's in jail and who's not. You have to look at the fact that poor people, and unfortunate, predominantly of color have the least effective defense in their cases. And you have to look at this particular case."

"I think it's right to ask the Justice Department to fully, fully pursue civil rights violation," he said.

The White House has signaled no plans to issue a reaction to the verdict, but President Obama waded briefly into the issue in March 2012, when he offered a message to Trayvon Martin's parents.

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Mr. Obama said, "and I think they are right to expect that all of us, as Americans, are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."

That brief comment drew a condemnation from Republican strategist Karl Rove on "Fox News Sunday."

"President Obama politicized this at the beginning of it, I believe, unfortunately, by injecting himself into it," Rove said. "We need a president to bring us together, not rip us apart, and I hope the Justice Department does not respond to the ill-advised recommendation of the NAACP to continue this controversy."

Mr. Obama's comments about Trayvon Martin were not the first time has ventured into the treacherous thicket of racial politics in America. In 2009, he said a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., "acted stupidly" in arresting a black Harvard professor in his own home after a break-in was reported.

Some thought the president had improperly put his thumb on the scale of an issue that was not yet resolved. The controversy that resulted led to a 2009 "beer summit" in which the professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, and the officer, Sergeant James Crowley, Jr., shared a beer and talked out their differences at the White House with President Obama and Vice President Biden.

And in 2008, during the height of his first presidential campaign, a burgeoning scandal over the controversial, racially tinged remarks of Mr. Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, forced then-Sen. Obama to deliver a widely-praised speech in Philadelphia on race relations in America.

"The comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through - a part of our union that we have yet to perfect," he said in the speech. "And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together."

Instead, the president said, through dialogue and collaboration, "We can move beyond some of our old racial wounds...in fact, we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."


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