The shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was tragic and unnecessary, and it ought to spark public debate about how to prevent similar incidents, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Monday.
In his first comments since a state jury acquitted George Zimmerman on Saturday in the February 2012 shooting case, Holder said federal prosecutors were continuing to investigate.
"Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised," Holder told a convention of Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority.
Although Zimmerman was cleared of murder charges under Florida law, U.S. prosecutors could decide to bring criminal charges under a federal hate-crimes law, and some civil rights advocates are lobbying prosecutors to do so.
The hate-crimes law would require the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, shot Martin, who was black, because of race.
Prosecutors would decide what to do based on the facts of the case and the law, Holder said.
The chief U.S. prosecutor and an appointee of President Barack Obama, Holder received a warm welcome from the more than 14,000 sorority members in the audience at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
The audience responded enthusiastically when Holder said the Justice Department shared their concerns about the Martin case, and again when he said he wanted to take action to counter the "underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents."