With civil rights fees, Justice Dept. indicators priorities


The Justice Department these days is sending a strong message about its priorities.

Police investigations have been commenced in Louisville, Kentucky and Minneapolis for the past two weeks. Federal prosecutors have indicted four former Minneapolis police officers on civil rights violations in George Floyd’s death and three men on hate crimes in the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. In both criminal cases, authorities brought federal charges before most of the defendants were brought to justice.

Attorney General Merrick Garland keeps his confirmatory pledge to refocus the department on civil rights after four years of turmoil during the Trump administration, when such investigations waned and the focus was on immigration containment and the Russia investigation.

“What we failed to do in the case of Eric Garner, Michael Brown at Ferguson and countless others, we will finally see them,” Rev. Al Sharpton said Friday after the charges in Floyd’s death were announced.

Former Minneapolis official Derek Chauvin has already been convicted of murder and manslaughter in a state court and is due to be convicted on June 25. The federal case could be insurance against a successful state appeal or a mild sentence.

Separately, federal officials charged Chauvin in a 2017 case in which Chauvin arrested a 14-year-old boy. Chauvin hit the boy, who is black, with a flashlight and put him on the floor, placing his knee on the boy’s neck and back.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, filed for retrial on Floyd’s death, citing a number of reasons, including the advertising that was “so ubiquitous and so detrimental … that it was a structural flaw in the trial “.

He also argued that trial judge Peter Cahill misused his discretion in denying previous motions to postpone the trial. Cahill didn’t say when he would decide on Nelson’s rescheduling motion.

Nelson had no comment on the federal allegations.

The three other officers, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng, and Tou Thao, who have been charged with civil rights, have not yet been tried in a state court for assisting and facilitating second-degree murder in the Floyd case.

As a rule, federal prosecutors withhold all charges until the local investigation is complete. But when they do, a safety net is often seen against the difficulty of keeping track of law enforcement agencies on the ground.

According to a person familiar with the investigation, it happened during the trial against former officer Michael Slager in South Carolina. In 2015, Slager shot dead Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who ran from a traffic obstruction.

Local prosecutors feared they might not win a conviction, this person said. The federal prosecutor stepped in and charged and worked out a plea deal to resolve both the federal and state cases. Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The person was not authorized to discuss these internal deliberations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The federal fee is limited in scope and has rarely been used. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), federal prosecutors used it an average of 41 times a year between 1990 and 2019.

In the 1960s, federal authorities successfully prosecuted eight men involved in the 1964 disappearances and killings of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi, after local authorities said they did not have enough evidence to prosecute someone.

One of the most famous applications of federal law was the 1992 Rodney King case in Los Angeles. Federal authorities accused four law enforcement officers of violating King’s constitutional rights in his taped beatings. That decision was made after a jury in Simi Valley acquitted the state trial officials, which sparked riots in Los Angeles for several days.

It’s not clear if Garland stepped in to help local Minneapolis prosecutors with the three officials, but it is likely that they will communicate about the cases. And the same is true in Georgia, where Travis McMichael and his father Gregory and a third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, were charged with hate crimes when Ahmaud Arbery, 25, died. The three are being arrested for state murder and will have to appear in court next week. No negotiation date was set.

Arbery was killed at close range by three shotguns on February 23, 2020 after the McMichaels chased him in a pickup truck. Arbery was dead more than two months when a cellphone video of the shooting leaked online, causing a national outcry. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took the case and arrested the men.

Federal officials have also revived sample or practice exams that were rarely used under the Trump administration. They weren’t banned under President Donald Trump, but his Attorney General William Barr suggested that they may have been overused previously.

Jeff Sessions was Trump’s first attorney general, and when he resigned in November 2018, he signed a memo severely restricting the use of consent ordinances, often used in major police changes in a city. The directive made implementation difficult and required senior Justice Department officials to approve the deal. It was quickly repealed under Garland.

Federal officials have launched extensive investigations into Louisville police’s tactics following the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville last year. A similar investigation by the Minneapolis police was found guilty the day after Chauvin was discovered.

These public announcements have raised hopes that the Garland Justice Department will re-examine some closed investigations. The family of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014 while the boy was playing with a toy gun, wrote a letter to Garland requesting that the investigation be reopened.

“The election of President Biden, your appointment and your commitment to the rule of law, racial justice and police reform give Tamir’s family hope that the chance of accountability will not be lost forever,” the family said in the letter.

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