The Department of Justice is responding to calls from civil rights groups and lawmakers to review the case of dead Florida teenager Trayvon Martin following the not-guilty verdict by a jury Saturday for George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Martin in apparent self-defense.
"Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction and whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department's policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial," the department said in a release Sunday.
The DOJ has had an open investigation since last year, involving its civil rights division, the U.S. Attorney's regional Florida office and the FBI, but so far documents made public show no finding that Zimmerman was acting out of racial bias.
Public protests cropped up in cities across the country over the weekend, including in Washington; Oakland, Calif.; Boston and New York, as many disagreed with the acquittal of Zimmerman by a six-woman jury. The panel has been described as made up of five white women and one possible Hispanic; Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic. The jury deliberated for about 15 hours following three weeks of testimony.
The NAACP launched a petition on its website soon after the verdict was reached calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to scrutinize the case.
"The most fundamental of civil rights – the right to life – was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin," the petition says. "We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation. Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today."
For decades, the DOJ has a precedent for applying federal civil rights laws in state cases rife with racial tension, including in the Rodney King case in Los Angeles. In 1992, four white L.A. police officers were videotaped beating King, a black man, but acquitted of all charges. The verdict led to the L.A. riots that killed more than 50.
President Barack Obama also issued a statement Sunday, calling Martin's death a tragedy but requesting calm from the public.
"I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher," Obama 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."
Some on the right criticized Obama for politicizing the case because he also obliquely referenced gun control, an area where he pushed for but failed to achieve legislation earlier this year.
"We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis," he said. "We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that's a job for all of us."