July 17, 2013

AG Eric Holder pans 'Stand Your Ground'

The attorney general tells the NAACP such laws 'senselessly expand the concept of self-defense.'

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Sari Horwitz / The Washington Post

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."

Eric Holder
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Attorney General Eric Holder delivers the keynote address at the annual convention of the NAACP, which is pressing him to bring civil rights charges in the Trayvon Martin case.

The Associated Press

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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 can 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 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 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 simply 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 was 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.

(Continued on page 2)

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