President Barack Obama is not playing a role in determining whether or not the Justice Department will pursue federal charges for civil rights violations against George Zimmerman, the Florida man acquitted of murder over the weekend, a spokesman said Monday.
Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, last year. On Saturday a jury determined he acted in self-defense, despite the fact Martin was unarmed.
The case has inflamed racial tensions and civil rights groups have called on the DOJ to pursue action. A petition effort has been initiated by the NAACP and protest marches, mostly peaceful, have sprung up in cities across the country. The department said Sunday it was continuing an investigation into the matter that was initiated in 2012.
"Cases are brought on the merits and the merits are evaluated by the professionals at the DOJ," said White House spokesman Jay Carney during his daily press briefing. "The president expects it will be handled the way it should be at the DOJ."
Obama released a statement Sunday on the verdict, calling for calm but also asking Americans to reflect on the circumstances around the killing.
"We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken," Obama said. "I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. 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."
Carney said the country's first African-American president would leave the decision to pursue further charges against Zimmerman, which would apply if there was evidence the encounter was racially motivated, to the department headed by the country's first African-American Attorney General, Eric Holder.
"This is a decision made by the Justice Department and that is not something the president involves himself in," Carney said, adding the president released a statement over the weekend to address the tragedy of the death of a teenager, not publicly press for action.
"I think the president's statement reflects his views about the verdict, the tragic loss of Trayvon Martin … and the fact that his loss reflects and symbolizes the loss we see daily in this country," Carney said. "It would be inappropriate for the president of the United States [to weigh in] on what the Justice Department should do."
Holder, addressing the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta's national convention Monday, said he and the DOJ have concerns regarding the circumstances surrounding Martin's death, and confirmed the department has an open investigation into the matter. Without tipping his hand, the attorney general said, "We must not – as we have too often in the past – let this opportunity pass."
"I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised," he said. "Moreover, I want to assure you that the department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law."
Both Holder and Obama have said regardless of the outcome of this specific case, the country needs to do more to reduce gun violence.
"We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents," Holder said.