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Orlando, Fla. - Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. strongly condemned "Stand Your Ground" laws Tuesday, saying the measures "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense" and may encourage "violent situations to escalate."
On the books in more than 30 states, the statutes have become a focal point of a complicated national debate over race, crime and culpability in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. The volunteer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder charges on Saturday.
Zimmerman did not cite Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law - which says people who feel threatened may defend themselves with deadly force and are not legally required to flee - in his trial defense. Still, the instructions given to the jury said that as long as Zimmerman was not involved in an illegal activity and had a right to be where he was when the shooting occurred, "he had no duty to retreat and the right to stand his ground."
"These laws try to fix something that was never broken," Holder told cheering delegates of the annual convention of the NAACP, which is pressing him to file a civil rights charges against Zimmerman. "The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent."
Holder, who is the nation's first African American attorney general and serves under the first African American president, drew discomfiting parallels between his own life and the claims of many here that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin after spotting the teenager walking through his father's neighborhood in a "hoodie" sweatshirt. Martin was African American. Zimmerman's father is white. His mother is Peruvian.
Holder recalled being pulled over twice by police on the New Jersey Turnpike as a young man, and having his car searched, "when I'm sure I wasn't speeding." Another time, he said, he was stopped by law enforcement in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood while running to catch a movie after dark.
"I was, at the time of that last incident, a federal prosecutor," Holder said drily, prompting some in the audience at the Orlando Convention Center to gasp in disgust and others to shake their heads. "We must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs, and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments."
Holder's comments were the first extensive discussion of the Zimmerman verdict by a member of the Obama administration. His personal stories and condemnation of "Stand Your Ground" laws brought the audience to its feet. But administration officials say that there is little the Justice Department can do to actually change the laws, since they are state, rather than federal, statutes.
As a youth, Holder said, his father warned him about how to act carefully if he were stopped by police, adding, "This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down," However, after Martin was killed, Holder decided he had to have a similar conversation with his 15-year-old son.
The attorney general also invoked his late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, one of two students who, with the protection of the National Guard, walked past Gov. George Wallace in 1963 and integrated the University of Alabama.
"Her story, and others like it, drove me to dream of a career in public service and led me to spend my first summer in law school working for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund," Holder said.
Holder sharply criticized last month's Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a critical component of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court said that Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to pre-approval by the Justice Department or a court when changing voting laws.
Holder said that the Justice Department would not wait for Congress to take action. In a significant move, he announced he is shifting resources in the Civil Rights division to focus on provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were not affected by the Supreme Court's ruling, including Section 2, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race, color or language.
In the convention center lobby here, though, the conversation on Tuesday was mostly about a slain teenager, and the events leading up to and following his death.
Gary Bledsoe, vice chairman of the NAACP's legal committee, said that he heard enough during Zimmerman's three-week trial to convince him that race played a role.
"There are so many references with clear racial undertones," Bledsoe, a Texas civil rights lawyer, said in an interview. "You can break down the language."
It will be hard for Holder to ignore an NAACP petition, signed by more than 1 million people, asking for civil rights charges against Zimmerman. "That's leverage," Bledsoe said.
And indeed, in his speech, Holder assured the delegates that the Justice Department is investigating Zimmerman for possible civil rights charges. But current and former Justice Department attorneys, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that bringing civil rights charges against Zimmerman would be extremely difficult, and may not be possible.
The verdict has sparked demonstrations in major cities across the country, including protests in Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., that had moments of violence. At least nine people were arrested and one man was injured in Oakland on Monday night, and marchers in Los Angeles tore down railings and blocked a freeway.
Music superstar Stevie Wonder, who is African American, said at a concert Sunday in Canada that "until the Stand Your Ground law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again. As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world."
But the mood in Sanford, where the trial took place, has been calm, with small rallies and prayer services, rather than fiery protests.