WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday blasted police handling of a racially charged case in which a neighborhood watch volunteer shot dead an unarmed black teenager in Florida, accusing local law enforcement officials of botching the investigation.
The lawmakers, speaking at a congressional forum attended by the parents of the slain teenager, called for the immediate arrest of 28-year-old George Zimmerman, the white Hispanic who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26 in what Zimmerman said was self-defense.
Florida law enforcement officials have faced intense criticism in recent weeks from civil rights activists and others for not arresting Zimmerman, who remains at large and in seclusion. Police say a state “stand your ground” law that allows people to use deadly force when they perceive danger in any public place has prevented them from making an arrest.
Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who represents a district that includes Sanford, the town where the shooting took place, decried the police inaction, saying she did not know if it was due to incompetence, a cover-up or “all of the above.”
Tuesday’s event underscored how the case has become increasingly politicized in an election year. President Barack Obama weighed in last week in highly personal terms, saying that if he had a son he would look like Martin, a comment widely interpreted as implicit recognition of the case’s racial overtones.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who represents another Florida district, said Martin was the victim of a “botched police investigation” and racial profiling, suggesting that the teenager was unfairly “hunted” by Zimmerman simply because he was black.
According to 911 call tapes that have been released, Zimmerman ignored a police request to stop following Martin after calling the emergency number to report that a young man in a hooded sweatshirt looked to be “up to no good.”
Black community leaders say the case is part of a nationwide pattern of discrimination against blacks. Race remains a flashpoint issue in the United States, which still grapples with a legacy of slavery, segregation and racial bias.
“Mr Zimmerman should be arrested immediately for his own safety,” Wilson said at a forum convened mostly by black Democratic lawmakers to hear testimony from civil rights activists and legal experts on racial profiling and hate crimes.
Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, were applauded after the chairman of the forum, Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, asked them to stand up. Conyers then asked for a moment of silence.
The parents did not testify but spoke briefly to thank people for their support. More than 2 million people have signed an online petition calling for justice in the case.
“As I said before and I’ll say it again, Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon is your son. A lot of people can relate to our situation and it breaks their heart just like it breaks mine.” Fulton said.
Congressman Al Green told the crowded hearing that probable cause existed for police to make an arrest.
“I want justice to prevail. I am convinced there should have been an arrest,” he said.
Sanford’s police chief and the Florida state prosecutor overseeing the case stepped aside after coming under fire for not arresting Zimmerman.
Accounts of exactly what happened the night of February 26 have been confused. Zimmerman told police that Martin punched him, knocked him down and slammed his head into the sidewalk repeatedly before he fired the fatal gunshot.
Earlier on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, was asked at a press conference whether he thought law enforcement officials had handled the case properly.
“Clearly what happened is in fact a tragedy. It’s being investigated by state and federal officials, which I think is appropriate, and I think I’ll leave it at that,” Boehner said.
Reporting By Donna Smith, writing by Ross Colvin,; Editing by Vicki Allen, Eric Beech and Paul Simao