The death of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent trial of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, brought back some sore memories for the U.S. attorney general.
"They brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man," Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP at their annual convention in Orlando Tuesday. "When I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I'm sure I wasn't speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C."
The shooting, meanwhile, inspired personal comments from President Obama as well. "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon,"last year.
The commander in chief and the nation's top prosecutor made those remarks in part to convey how their personal experiences as black Americans have influenced their commitment to equal justice under the law. Yet after a Florida jury on Saturday acquitted Zimmerman, Mr. Obama's response has been decidedly muted. "We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken," he said in a statement, calling for reflection on "how we can prevent future tragedies like this."
Holder has promised a thorough and honest investigation into the case before the Justice Department decides whether it should file criminal civil rights charges; the White House has said Mr. Obama will play no part in that decision.
Some civil rights leaders say they're expecting more from the administration of the nation's first African-American president.
"The president has made a statement of consolation,"outside of the Justice Department on Tuesday. "We don't need consolation, we need legislation. And we need some federal prosecution."
Mr. Obama is hardly the first president compelled to address a high-profile criminal court case that's dredged up unpleasant questions about racial equality in the nation's legal system. The Martin shooting and Zimmerman's trial have drawn comparisons to the Rodney King beating and subsequent trials, as well as the O.J. Simpson murder trial. President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton both talked about race following those trials, but the dynamic is different for Mr. Obama.
"Many people feel President Obama has a special obligation to focus on these issues because he's the first black president," Richard Ford, an expert on civil rights and antidiscrimination law at Stanford Law School, told CBSNews.com. "On the other hand, other people would be suspicious that he was inappropriately biased on the issue. He's walking a tightrope with respect to these issues, and that probably explains some of his reticence."
While comparisons can be made to the way former presidents handled racially-divisive cases, such as the prosecution of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King in the early 1990s, the circumstances of the Zimmerman case are very different. In the Zimmerman case, there were no witnesses, and the verdict may have been justified by Florida laws, Ford points out.