The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 21, 2013

Area officials react to jury decision in Zimmerman verdict

By Adam Smith
adam@athensnews-courier.com

— Eight days after a six-member jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, reaction to the verdict continues to polarize the nation.

In a rare discussion about race during a Friday press conference, President Obama said Martin could have been him “35 years ago.”

“When you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said.

The disappointment about the verdict was evident in the voice of Harvest resident NAACP State President Benard Simelton, who spoke to The News Courier by phone Thursday. He said the civil rights group is “outraged” by the jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman.

“It appears this is another African-American life that was taken and nothing was done about,” he said. “We truly believe that if it was reversed and it was the African-American who did the shooting, he would have never been out of jail because the bond would have been too high and the jury would have found him guilty of something.”

Simelton, who on Thursday was returning from a NAACP convention, said he hopes the U.S. Justice Department will file civil-rights charges against Zimmerman. He added that U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder spoke at the convention.

“(Holder) said his office will look into that, but can’t promise anything,” Simelton said.

He also hopes states, including Florida and Alabama, will look at Stand Your Ground laws that allow a person to use deadly force if they feel threatened. In all, about 26 states have similar laws, some of which are referred to as “Castle” laws that enable a homeowner to protect his or her life and property with deadly force.

“We’re not against anyone defending themselves if they are being attacked,” Simelton said, adding that he believes Martin was profiled by Zimmerman. “(Zimmerman) should have stopped, backed off and not tried to be a cop and take matters into his own hands. He followed Trayvon and killed him. That is a travesty.”

State laws

With a majority of voting Alabamians considering themselves Republicans and Second Amendment advocates, the likelihood of seeing the state’s self-defense laws overturned seems unlikely.

Republican State Sen. Bill Holtzlcaw, R-Madison, said he would not support such a move.

“(I’m not for) anything limiting your ability to stand your ground or defend your home or business,” he said. “This is the wrong state to bring that up.”

Holtzclaw describes himself as a staunch Second Amendment advocate who was “thoroughly embroiled” in the Legislature’s decision to expand gun rights during the last session.

“I’m a gun advocate when I speak to groups, but I’m also an advocate of people knowing the law and practicing and training in realistic conditions,” he said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I’ve got a gun,’ but it’s another to be prepared mentally and physically to use it.”

When asked about the possibility of state laws governing neighborhood watch groups, Holtzclaw said those groups should continue to work with local police departments to establish guidelines.

Neighborhood watch

Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson said neighborhood watch groups serve a valuable purpose because his officers can’t be in every neighborhood at all times. He knows of at least six watch groups in the area, though he admits there may be more.

“We try to make them aware that if they see something, they should let us handle it. If there’s something going on, just watch it and let us know,” he said. “You don’t know if (the suspicious person) has a gun or any type of weapon. We also deal with the unknown, but the difference is, we’ve had a lot of training and we deal with people day in and day out.”