WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Merrick Garland has been following through on his confirmation-hearing promise to refocus the Justice Department on civil rights after four years of tumult during the Trump administration, when such investigations waned.
In just the past two weeks, the department has opened investigations of police in Louisville, Ky., and Minneapolis. Federal prosecutors have charged four former Minneapolis police officers with civil-rights violations in George Floyd's death, and they have accused three men of hate crimes in the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. In both criminal cases, authorities moved forward with federal charges before most of the defendants have gone to state trial.
"What we couldn't get [the Justice Department] to do in the case of Eric Garner, Michael Brown in Ferguson, [Mo.], and countless others, we are finally seeing them do," the Rev. Al Sharpton said Friday after the charges were announced in Floyd's death.
Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin has already been convicted of murder and manslaughter in state court and is scheduled to be sentenced June 25. The federal case could be insurance against a successful state appeal or a lenient sentence.
Separately, federal officials accused Chauvin in a 2017 case involving his arrest of a 14-year-old boy. Chauvin is accused of hitting the boy, who is Black, with a flashlight and pinning him to the ground, putting his knee on the boy's neck and back.
Chauvin's lawyer, Eric Nelson, has filed a request for a new trial in Floyd's death, citing a host of reasons, including publicity that was "so pervasive and so prejudicial ... that it amounted to a structural defect in the proceedings."
He also argued that the trial judge, Peter Cahill, abused his discretion when he denied requests to move the trial. Cahill has not said when he would rule on Nelson's request for a new trial.
Nelson had no comment on the federal charges.
The three other officers brought up on civil-rights charges, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao, haven't been tried yet in state court on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter in the Floyd case.
Usually, federal prosecutors hold off on any charges until local investigations are completed. But when they do, it's often seen as a safety net against the difficulty of prosecuting law enforcement authorities locally.
The federal charge is limited in its scope and has rarely been used. According to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, federal prosecutors have 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 murders of civil-rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Miss., after local authorities said they did not have enough evidence to prosecute anyone.
One of the most high-profile uses of the federal statutes came in the 1992 Rodney King case in Los Angeles. Federal authorities charged four law enforcement officers with violating King's constitutional rights in his videotaped beating. That decision came after a jury in Simi Valley acquitted the officers in the state case, prompting several days of riots in Los Angeles.
It's not clear whether Garland was stepping in to aid local prosecutors in Minneapolis with the three officers, but it's likely they are communicating about the cases. It's the same in Georgia, where federal hate crime charges were announced against Travis McMichael; his father, Gregory; and a third man, William "Roddie" Bryan, in the death of the 25-year-old Arbery. The three are jailed on state murder charges and are due in court this week. Jury selection is scheduled to start Oct. 18.
Arbery was killed Feb. 23, 2020, by three close-range shotgun blasts after the McMichaels pursued him in a pickup. Arbery had been dead more than two months when a cellphone video of the shooting was leaked online, leading to a national outcry. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case and arrested the men.
Information for this article was contributed by Gary Fields and Colleen Long of The Associated Press.