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U.S. attorney general questions 'Stand Your Ground' laws

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a major civil rights convention that ‘Stand Your Ground' self-defense laws that have been adopted in 30 states should be reconsidered.

Holder was addressing the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Orlando, 25 miles from the small city of Sanford, Florida, where jurors on Saturday found former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

"Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation's attention, it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods," Holder said.

Holder, who is black, also related personal stories about being racially profiled as a young adult and stopped by police when he was committing no crime.

"Trayvon's death last spring caused me to sit down and have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me," Holder said. "This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down."

Under the "Stand Your Ground" law, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it is possible.

"By allowing — and perhaps encouraging — violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety. The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent," Holder said.

"We must ‘stand our ground' to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent," he added, to extended applause.

His speech was well received by the audience of NAACP members from across the country. "We heard what we were hoping to hear today," said NAACP President Ben Jealous.

For the second day in a row, Holder called the death of Martin, an unarmed black teenager, "unnecessary," raising questions about whether he believed Zimmerman acted in self-defense.

After the verdict the Justice Department said it would reopen its investigation into the case to determine whether any civil rights laws had been violated by the state court handling it.

Holder said all available information would be considered and "the complicated and emotional issues this case raised."

Zimmerman's lawyers used the Stand Your Ground law to argue that he acted in self-defense. It was the first time Holder has addressed the Stand Your Ground issue. Then again, the Department of Justice has only limited authority to change such state laws.

The U.S. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 would require the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, shot Martin because of race.

The jury in the Trayvon Martin case rejected the second-degree murder charge that Zimmerman acted with ill will, spite or hatred.

More than 800,000 people have signed an online NAACP petition asking Holder to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, the association said.

(Writing by David Adams. Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta.; Editing by Gary Hill and Steve Orlofsky)

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