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Feds need look no further than Rodney King for the case against Wilson

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In August 1992, nearly three months to the day after the four LAPD officers that beat black motorist Rodney King were acquitted on nearly all charges by a jury with no blacks on it, Lourdes G. Baird, the United States Attorney for California’s Central District, stepped before a battery of news cameras and reporters and announced that three of the officers would face federal charges. The charges were violating King’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable arrest and with depriving him of his 14th Amendment due-process rights during his March, 1991 arrest. The officers would face up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted.

The Justice Department’s decision to prosecute rested squarely on two compelling legal and public interest points, neither of which significantly involved any need to proof racial animus. The legal charges were that the officers who beat King acted under the color of the law. This violated a near century old federal statute that makes it a crime to deprive any person of a Constitutional right under the color of law. The statute specifically targeted police officers and public officials who abuse their authority and violate public trust by physically victimizing citizens.

The Justice Department assigned more than a dozen agents to the case, and a team of civil rights attorneys and investigators. It repeatedly fended off loud criticisms that the prosecution was a racial witch hunt to satisfy the clamor from civil rights organizations and a sop to African-Americans who blasted their acquittal in state court. This charge was continually leveled at then President George H.W. Bush who green-lighted the federal prosecution. He was accused of caving in to the threat of more bloody riots if he didn’t act.

There would have been absolutely no chance to bring, let alone get, convictions of the officers if there had been even the remotest public hint that race was the sole reason for the federal prosecution. The Justice Department had to bring, argue and try to win their convictions exclusively on the evidence and testimony that the cops violated the federal statutes in beating King. Baird reiterated the point: “Racial motivation is not an element of any of these charges.”

Twenty-two years later, the situation with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is nearly identical. The instant the call went up for a federal investigation and prosecution of Wilson on civil rights charges in the slaying of Michael Brown, the same loud scream was heard that Wilson broke no law, acted under color of authority, and that any federal action against him was done solely to appease civil rights organizations that clamored for his head. The Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict him brought the same outcry that the state trial and acquittal of the four LAPD cops who beat King brought, namely that there are no grounds for a separate federal action against him.

Federal prosecutors in the King case knocked that down when they made clear that the jury decision did not satisfy the federal requirement for the presentation of fair, unbiased evidence and witness testimony in a publicly charged trial. The same argument stands with the Ferguson grand jury. The gaping holes, inconsistencies, contradictions and omission in and of the testimony and evidence presented to the grand jury, as well as the dismissal of witness testimony that would have rebutted Wilson’s story, was ignored. This violated the fundamental precept of how a grand jury is supposed to function.

Even U.S. Supreme Court Antonin Scalia, the hardest of hard-nosed in defending absolute police power, noted that it is the grand jury’s function not “to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,” or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine “upon what foundation [the charge] is made” by the prosecutor. Scalia made one more another crucial point that debunks any notion the Ferguson proceeding was fair. This was the four-hour guided testimony of Wilson. Scalia noted that “neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented. “

Brown, as was King, was unarmed. Brown and King were not charged with a crime when detained. Brown, as King, received injuries after he ceased resisting. Brown, as King, was abused during an official stop. These, as they were with King, are compelling civil rights violations.

Associate Attorney General Wayne Budd, who directed the federal investigation into the King beating case, issued this terse statement after the indictment of the LAPD cops was announced “The Department of Justice has a responsibility to vindicate the violation of the fundamental rights protected by the United States Constitution.” The indictment he said was the first step toward fulfilling that responsibility.

The Justice Department should take the same step in the Brown slaying it took 22 years ago in the King beating case. That is to fulfill its responsibility and prosecute Wilson.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst