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Trayvon Martin case grows as national issue; Obama weighs in

March 23, 2012|By Michael Muskal

The case of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed black teenager Trayvon Martin, continues to reverberate beyond Sanford, Fla., with new investigations, nationwide demonstrations and concerns expressed by President Obama on Friday.

Trayvon, 17, was shot by Zimmerman, a Latino, on Feb. 26. Zimmerman told Sanford police that he acted in self-defense and police decided not to charge the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer. Since that decision, the police chief has temporarily stepped aside and protests have roiled the Florida city with a turbulent racial past. And rallies, vigils and school walk-outs have emerged across the country, including in Los Angeles and New York City.

In response, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi announced they were appointing a special prosecutor, Angela B. Corey, to investigate the shooting. The move came after Scott talked with the sitting prosecutor Norman Wolfinger, who recused himself. In addition to the state grand jury is scheduled to meet next month on the case and the U.S. Department of Justice is examining the incident to see if a federal hate crime took place.

But, arguably the biggest leap into the national arena came Friday morning when President Obama made his first comments on the issue. At an appearance to announce the nomination of a new World Bank president, Obama responded to a reporter’s question by calling the Martin case a tragedy that must be thoroughly investigated.

“Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think 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,” Obama said.

“But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin,” said Obama. “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. 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.”

Mitt Romney, the leader in delegates for the GOP presidential nomination agreed. "What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy," he said in a statement. "There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”

There have been conflicting accounts of what happened the night of Feb. 26, though all parties agree that Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon. According to police, Zimmerman maintain that Trayvon attacked him.

The family says that Trayvon was returning to his father's home from a convenience store and was walking through a gated community in the Orlando suburb when Zimmerman confronted the teenager. Police tapes show that Zimmerman called to report seeing a suspicious person and was told to stand down by the operator. But he didn’t. The family says that Martin was talking to his girlfriend on a cellphone and said their son was afraid.

Civil rights activists also question how Zimmerman was treated by police because he was not charged, and alcohol or drug tests were not taken. They argue that if a black neighborhood watch person had shot a white teenager, police would have reacted differently.

Even as he was stepping down, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee again defended his department’s investigation of the incident. Police have said they acted correctly, given the Florida law.

Lee stepped aside hours before thousands marched Thursday night in Sanford to protest the handling of  the case.

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Michael.muskal@latimes.com

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