Outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin reached Washington Monday as the Congressional Black Caucus called on the Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into the shooting death of the Florida teenager by a white neighborhood watch captain. And by late in the day, the Justice Department had announced it will launch an investigation into Martin's killing.
"We urge the Department of Justice to immediately and thoroughly investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin as a hate crime," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). CBC chair, said in a statement. "This case compromises the integrity of our legal system and sets a horrific precedent of vigilante justice."
Cleaver added that "as a nation we cannot, should not, and will not ignore, Trayvon's brutal murder and the inconceivable fact that his killer remains free."
Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in response to a reporter's question about whether President Barack Obama had planned to weigh in on the case, said, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Trayvon Martin's family."
"But obviously, we're not going to wade into a local law enforcement matter," he added.
But late Monday, Justice Department officials announced they were sending its community relations service this week to Sanford, Florida to meet with authorities, community officials and civil rights leaders "to address tension in the community."
"The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation," the agency said in an emailed statement.
Martin, 17, was fatally shot in a gated community in Sanford last month by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain who thought the teen looked suspicious as he walked back from a convenience store carrying only a package of Skittles and an ice tea.
Zimmerman saw Martin as he was patrolling his neighborhood and called 911 to report a suspicious person. He went against the advice of the 911 dispatcher and followed Martin, who was walking home from the store with the bag of Skittles in his pocket.
The teen, described by one of his teachers as an "A and B student who majored in cheerfulness," lived with his mother in Miami, but was visiting his father and stepmother at The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford.
The shooting - and apparent shoddy handling of the case by local authorities - has spurred anger in the black community and put an intense media spotlight on the local police. Local killings of blacks rarely garner national attention. Trayvon Martin's case has.
The drumbeat for justice got only louder after 911 calls from Zimmerman and witnesses were released. The tapes raise questions about the motive of the shooting and seem to weaken Zimmerman's argument that he shot Martin in self-defense.
Neighbors have also spoken out in recent days and described Zimmerman as an over-zealous Neighborhood Watch member. The Miami Herald reported that Zimmerman, a criminal justice student, called police at least 46 times since January 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, or windows left open. In nine of those calls, he reported he saw someone or something suspicious, the paper reported.
As watch captain, he told neighbors to be on the lookout, specifically referring to young black men who appeared to be from the other side of the community's gates, The Herald reported.
Despite questions from the 911 accounts, Zimmerman remains uncharged and free, a travesty of justice, according to Cleaver.
"I am outraged by the way in which this case has been handled by the Sanford Police Department in Florida. Those who are meant to protect us and our children have blatantly turned their backs on fairness and justice ... the Sanford Police Department ....
has shown blatant disregard for justice," he said. "Contrary to the flippant way this case has been handled, his life had meaning and purpose. Trayvon had a family, friends and a future all taken away because of the color of his skin. We will not stop until justice for Trayvon is served because a life is a terrible thing to take."
As the Black Caucus called on the Obama administration to probe Martin's death, students from across Florida demonstrated Monday and demanded Zimmerman's arrest.
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton is expected to join Sanford city leaders in a Tuesday evening town hall meeting to discuss with residents how the investigation is being handled. Earlier Monday, students held rallies on the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and outside the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, where prosecutors are reviewing the case to determine if charges should be filed.
Yet authorities may be hamstrung by a state law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force.
Prosecutors may not be able to charge Zimmerman because of changes to state law in 2005. Under the old law, people could use deadly force in self-defense only if they had tried to run away or otherwise avoid the danger.
Under the new law, there is no duty to retreat and it gives a Floridian the right "to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force," if he feels threatened. "I don't think a man who exited his vehicle after the 911 dispatcher told him to stay inside the car can claim self-defense," Carl McPhail, a 28-year-old Barry University law school student, said at the Sanford rally.
The 70 protesters at the Sanford rally chanted "What if it was your son?" and held posters saying, "This is not a race issue." Many carried Skittles.
"You would think that Sanford is still in the 1800s claiming that this man can call self-defense for shooting an unarmed boy," Linda Tillman, a restaurant owner who attended a rally in Sanford, said Monday.