The American Civil Liberties Union seems a bit less unified in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal. I remain a huge admirer of the ACLU and its inspiring legacy in fighting for civil liberties in America. I also have great respect for ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. However, the divisions evident on this civil liberties blog appears equally represented in that civil liberties institution. To the surprise of many, including myself, Romero sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that seemed to clearly invite a civil rights or hate crime prosecution of George Zimmerman. The ACLU however has long taken the view that such prosecutions violate the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution. When the federal government does not like the outcome of a high-profile case, it can use the very same facts to bring another prosecution under a different crime. After sending the letter, however, the ACLU staff appear to have objected and sent out a conflicting position that such successive prosecutions are violative of constitutional principles.
As noted in the article below, the ACLU previously faced the same division and retraction in the aftermath of the Rodney King case — first supporting a federal prosecution and then denouncing it.
In his letter to Holder, Romero wrote:
“Last night’s verdict casts serious doubt on whether the legal system truly provides equal protection of the laws to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity. This case reminds us that it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime.”
That would seem to clearly invite not just an investigation but possible prosecution under civil rights or hate crime laws. Indeed, the ACLU said such action was “imperative.”
Various civil libertarians cried foul and reminded the ACLU of its policy that “There should be no exception to double jeopardy principles simply because the same offense may be prosecuted by two different sovereigns.”
It was then that the powerful Washington DC office stepped in with a letter of its own to Holder stating that
“We are writing to clearly state the ACLU’s position on whether or not the Department of Justice (DOJ) should consider bringing federal civil rights or hate crimes charges as a result of the state court acquittal in the George Zimmerman case. The ACLU believes the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution protects someone from being prosecuted in another court for charges arising from the same transaction. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and that should be the end of the criminal case.”
One could easily understand why Holder would be a tad confused (after all, he just went through mental gymnastics to excuse clear perjury by the National Intelligence Director James Clapper as a mere harmless lie under oath before the United States Congress. That had to leave some lasting cognitive damage). If the ACLU is opposed to such prosecutions, it is harm to understand the “imperative” described in Romero’s letter.
I have previously stated that I do not believe that there is a case for such a civil rights or hate crime prosecution. Indeed, Obama and Holder appear to know that when you read their statements warning citizens of the high burden in such cases. However, these prosecutions have also raised serious questions of double jeopardy despite the erosion of that protection by the federal courts. In this case, many people are outraged by the verdict and want the federal government to take a crack at Zimmerman. However such a prosecution would not only likely fail but it would be viewed as the Administration simply disagreeing with the results of a trial and jury verdict.
I have said from the first day of the indictment that Angela Corey had over-charged the case and I believe that the case might have come out differently had she charged it as a manslaughter. However, the record in the case does not come close to the record for past civil rights prosecutions. People want a do-over. The one thing that many on the different sides agree on is that Corey’s team did a poor job in the case. Yet, too often these federal prosecutions are used to “take another bite at the apple” after a high-profile and unpopular defeat.
I believe that the original letter of Romero was a mistake and contradicts the long commitment of the ACLU to the protection of citizens from successive prosecutions following acquittal. Former ACLU board member Michael Meyers joined many in criticizing Romero:
“The ACLU is out of line; a civil liberties organization is concerned with the accused getting a fair trial, which includes the right of effective counsel, due process and protection against double jeopardy. No government, much less an angry community, is entitled to a verdict to their liking . . . The ACLU is not the NAACP; the ACLU is the guardian of individual liberty, not a victims’ rights or racial grievance group.”
What do you think?