President Barack Obama spoke out Friday for the first time on the growing national controversy over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, saying Friday that the incident requires national "soul-searching."
"When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids," Obama said. "And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together, federal, state and local to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened."
Trayvon Martin, 17, died February 26. Police say he was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, who said he was acting in self-defense. Martin was unarmed, carrying a bag of Skittles candy and an iced tea, according to police.
Although a grand jury will convene April 10 to look into the case, authorities so far have declined to arrest the volunteer, George Zimmerman, sparking a national debate over Florida's "stand your ground" deadly force law amid concerns about racial profiling.
Martin's family asserts that race was a factor in the teenager's death.
Martin was African-American. A police report describes Zimmerman as white; his family says he is Hispanic and that he has been wrongly described as a racist.
Obama's unexpected comments brought a new dimension to a case that has generated intense response from across the country, elevating what the White House had previously described as a matter for local law-enforcement into one deemed worthy of presidential comment.
Obama praised Florida Gov. Rick Scott's decision to create a task force to review the "stand your ground" law and said that it would be important to "examine the laws and the context for what happened as well as the specifics of the incident."
"But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon," Obama said.
"I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americas are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and we will get to the bottom of exactly what happened," he said.
And he obliquely addressed the racial component of the case, saying it struck home for him because, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also weighed in on Friday. He declined to comment on a possible review of "stand your ground" laws, but said he is glad the case is under investigation.
"Well it was an incredible tragedy of huge proportions. I'm glad it's being investigated and we'll take a look at it as the investigation moves along," he said.
Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood, saw Martin walking in his gated community. He called 911 and reported what he described as a suspicious person. Moments later, several neighbors called the emergency number to report a commotion outside.
Police arrived to find Martin dead of a gunshot wound.
Authorities say they have not charged Zimmerman because they have no evidence to contradict his story that he shot in self-defense.
The case has prompted a Justice Department investigation, which is in the fact-finding stage, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez told reporters Thursday.
"We're gathering the facts and as we gather the facts we will then determine whether or not the facts support a prosecution under the civil rights laws that we enforce," he said.
Heated debate has erupted over whether Zimmerman used a racial slur during the 911 call, a recording of which was released this week.
"We didn't hear it. However, I am not sure what was said," Sgt. David Morgenstern of the Sanford Police Department said.
"I have listened to the tapes, and I have not heard them use a racial slur," concurred City Manager Bonaparte.
A top CNN audio engineer enhanced the sound of the 911 call, and several members of CNN's editorial staff repeatedly reviewed the tape but could reach no consensus on whether Zimmerman used a racial slur.
Whether Zimmerman used such language before shooting Martin is key, according to CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
"It's extremely, extremely significant because the federal government is not allowed to prosecute just your ordinary, everyday murder," he said. "Two people fighting on the street is not a federal crime. However, if one person shoots another based on racial hostility, racial animus, that does become a federal crime."
Toobin said that if "very shortly before" the shooting, "Zimmerman used this racial epithet to refer to the person he openly shot, that very much puts it within the FBI's and the Justice Department's ambit of a case that they could prosecute."
On Friday, students walked out of classes at four Miami-area high schools to protest police handling of the case and demand changes in Florida's law. At one school, Southridge High School in Southridge, Florida, students lined up on the football field to form the boy's initials, "T.M."
Demonstrations were also planned over the weekend in South Carolina and Virginia and Monday in Sanford and Atlanta.
Amid the protests and calls for reform, some Florida lawmakers said it was time to revisit the 2005 "stand your ground" law, which eliminated a long-standing provision requiring people facing danger outside of their homes to first attempt to retreat before meeting a threat with force.
Since the law's adoption, the number of justifiable homicide rulings in Florida has nearly tripled, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"We foretold that this would happen while we debated this law and a lot of us voted against it," Florida state Rep. Christopher Smith said Friday in an appearance on CNN. "They turned a blind eye to it. But now that America's looking at Florida, now people are starting to react and starting to really recognize what we were saying back in 2005 in the Florida House."
Valerie Houston, a pastor who helped organize a rally seeking charges in the case, said the review of the controversial law is "monumental."
She also praised Thursday's decision by Sanford police Chief Bill Lee to step down temporarily as head of the department which has been criticized for its handling of the fatal shooting.
"I think that gives the city a sense of hope that they can see some sense of justice being done, the investigation with the governor stepping in, the chief of police stepping down," she said. "I think that's going to motivate us, but also keep us in a more peaceful, nonviolent movement is what we want, but we still want the immediate arrest."
Lee's decision to step aside came a day after the city commission voted 3-2 in favor of a nonbinding measure of no confidence.
"It is apparent that my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process. Therefore, I have come to the decision that I must temporarily remove myself from the position," he said.
But U.S. Rep. Federicka Wilson, a Florida Democrat, joined the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others in saying that Lee's decision to step aside temporarily doesn't go far enough.
"He needs to be fired," she said Friday on CNN. "He needs to be removed. That's a temporary situation. He's still being paid. He probably still is a part of the investigation. He needs to be terminated. And those people in authority who refuse to terminate him? Perhaps they need to be terminated. That's the only way justice is going to be served."
Nor did the gesture mollify Martin's parents. "I feel that we need an arrest," his mother, Sybrina Fulton, told supporters at a rally in Sanford, referring to George Zimmerman, the watch leader who has told police he shot Martin in self-defense.
"The temporary step-down of Bill Lee is nothing," Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, told the rally. "We want an arrest, we want a conviction, and we want a sentence for the murder of our son."
Sharpton was more strident: "We did not come here for a temporary leave of absence," he said. "We came for permanent justice -- arrest Zimmerman now!"
Jackson, speaking on HLN on Friday, said the case was a tragedy, but there is still hope that good can come from Martin's death.
"If this case serves to wake us up, then his case has not been in vain," Jackson said.