The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

August 18, 2013

Federal government weighing civil rights role



Prosecuting civil rights cases isn't easy. Just because the U.S. Justice Department investigates the possibility, such as in the Trayvon Martin shooting, doesn't mean a case will move forward. Prosecutors may not believe there is enough evidence that an attack was motivated by bias or that police officers willfully violated someone's rights. These investigations can take months, even years.

Some cases the Justice Department investigated under great public pressure but hasn't prosecuted:

• The March 1991 slaying of a black teenager in Los Angeles bears striking similarities to the Martin case. Korean-American grocer Soon Ja Du suspected that 15-year-old Latasha Harlins intended to steal a bottle of orange juice. The two got into a physical altercation, and Du fatally shot the girl. Police said the money for the juice was in Latasha's hand when she died. Du claimed self-defense. Unlike the Trayvon case, the incident was recorded by security cameras, which showed Latasha turning away seconds before she was shot. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to probation and community service. Anger over the light sentence touched off protests and fed racial tensions that boiled over in the 1992 LA riots. Under pressure to bring a civil rights case, the Justice Department opened an investigation, but Du wasn't charged.

• African immigrant Amadou Diallo, 22, was unarmed when he was gunned down outside his Bronx, N.Y., apartment in February 1999 by four white plainclothes police. They were part of an elite street crime unit and said they approached Diallo because he resembled a rape suspect they were seeking. As Diallo reached for his wallet, the officers fired a fusillade of 41 bullets. They thought he was reaching for a gun, the police said. The four officers were cleared in state court. The Justice Department decided there wasn't enough evidence for civil rights charges, which would have required proving the officers intentionally used excessive force.

• Sean Bell, a 23-year-old black New Yorker, was killed at the wheel of his car early on the morning of what would have been his wedding day. Police fired 50 shots as Bell and two friends were driving away from his bachelor party at a Queens strip club in November 2006. The officers had seen Bell's friends arguing with another patron outside the club and said they thought Bell's group planned a drive-by shooting. There was no gun in the car. Three officers — one black, one white and one Hispanic — were tried before a judge, who cleared them. The Justice Department found insufficient evidence to bring civil rights charges.

• On New Year's Day 2009, subway passenger Oscar Grant was killed by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calif. Cellphone cameras captured the scene — an unarmed, 22-year-old black man shot while lying face down on a station platform, surrounded by police. Outrage over the incident led to riots in Oakland. The shooting is recreated in the current movie "Fruitvale Station." Transit police had seized Grant and others while investigating reports of a fight on a train. Then-officer Johannes Mehserle said he meant to reach for his Taser and mistakenly pulled his gun. Mehserle, who is white, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. The Justice Department announced in 2010 that it would look into a possible civil rights case, and the department says that investigation is still ongoing.

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