As expected, the Justice Department announced Wednesday that it will not prosecute former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The case followed the same pattern that we saw him the Zimmerman investigation: a premature entry into the case, Attorney General Eric Holder making public comments assuring a federal response, a long investigation, and a leak from the Justice Department preparing people for the rejection of any charges. In both cases, some of us questioned the timing of the entry of the federal investigators and the weak basis for a civil rights investigation. (For a prior column, click here) In the end, the Justice Department found much of the same inconsistencies detailed by the grand jury and the police in the Ferguson case.
The Justice Department found that Wilson’s actions “do not constitute prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal rights statute.” Specifically, the report found “no evidence” to disprove Wilson’s testimony that he feared for his safety. Notably, while the state prosecutors were attacked for finding witness testimony to be conflicted and unreliable, the federal investigators found the same thing:
“Although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson. As detailed throughout this report, some of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible or otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time.”
It would seem that some of these witnesses were not merely “inconsistent” but lying. However, the end result is the same. There was no basis for prosecution in the case.
Many viewed the early entry of the federal investigators into the case to be an unjustified and political move by Attorney General Eric Holder. At the time, Holder said he shared the same experience of profiling and abuse at the hands of police. As he did in the Trayvon Martin case, Holder sent in federal civil rights investigators before the initial investigation ended. Such federal investigations are ideally launched after state trials or, at a minimum, after an investigation is complete.
Now Holder is calling to lower the standard for civil rights prosecutions, a very worrisome prospect. Holder was clearly frustrated that he could not prosecute when he disagreed with the state prosecutors. Holder has long been viewed as hostile to federalism principles and this move would further erode the core police powers held by the states. Holder wants less of a barrier to federalizing such crimes — subjecting defendants to two alternative systems for prosecution.
The civil rights prosecutions should remain focused on their original purpose and should satisfy the current standard. The standard proof is high. It requires prosecutors to prove that a person used excessive force, willfully with the knowledge that it was wrong. It is important to remember however that this is just the standard for a civil rights prosecution. The same person is subject to an array of possible local and state charges. The standard reflected an effort to avoid precisely what Holder seems to want: a ready alternative for prosecution when the federal government disagrees with the results of state criminal cases or investigations.
Source: USA Today
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