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Justice Department signals civil-rights focus

by The Associated Press | May 9, 2021 at 4:09 a.m.
FILE - In this April 26, 2021, file photo Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, The Justice Department is opening a sweeping probe into policing in Louisville after the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police during a raid at her home. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

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.

FILE - This April 20, 2021, file image from video, defendant, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, listens to verdicts at his trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter charges in state court and is scheduled to be sentenced June 25. 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.” (Court TV via AP, Pool)
FILE - This April 20, 2021, file image from video, defendant, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, listens to verdicts at his trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter charges in state court and is scheduled to be sentenced June 25. 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.” (Court TV via AP, Pool)
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, Monday, April 26, 2021, as associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. listen. The Justice Department is opening a sweeping probe into policing in Louisville after the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police during a raid at her home.  (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, Monday, April 26, 2021, as associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. listen. The Justice Department is opening a sweeping probe into policing in Louisville after the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police during a raid at her home. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)
This combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, shows from left, Minneapolis Police Officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. Chauvin. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)
This combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, shows from left, Minneapolis Police Officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. Chauvin. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 file photo, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, prays with a group from Rainbow of Mothers, before placing a large wreath at her son's grave on the fifth anniversary of this death, at St. Peter's Cemetery in St. Louis. At left is Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, who was killed by police in 2014 in Ohio. At center is Ben Crump, her attorney, and at right, her husband, Louis Head. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 file photo, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, prays with a group from Rainbow of Mothers, before placing a large wreath at her son's grave on the fifth anniversary of this death, at St. Peter's Cemetery in St. Louis. At left is Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, who was killed by police in 2014 in Ohio. At center is Ben Crump, her attorney, and at right, her husband, Louis Head. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
FILE - In this Dec, 15, 2014 file photo, Samaria Rice, of Cleveland, Ohio, mother of Tamir Rice, touches her hand to her face during an interview at The Associated Press, in New York. A Cleveland police officer fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Nov. 22 as he played with a toy gun outside a recreation center. The family of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2014, asked the Justice Department on Friday to reopen the case into the boy's death after it was closed in the waning weeks of the Trump administration. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
FILE - In this Dec, 15, 2014 file photo, Samaria Rice, of Cleveland, Ohio, mother of Tamir Rice, touches her hand to her face during an interview at The Associated Press, in New York. A Cleveland police officer fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Nov. 22 as he played with a toy gun outside a recreation center. The family of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2014, asked the Justice Department on Friday to reopen the case into the boy's death after it was closed in the waning weeks of the Trump administration. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, Wanda Cooper-Jones kneels before the grave of her son, Ahmaud Arbery, at the New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Ga., to mark the one year anniversary of Ahmaud Arbery's death in Brunswick, Ga. The Justice Department announced federal hate crime charges Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the death of Arbery, who was killed while out for a run.(AP Photo/Lewis M. Levine, file)
FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, Wanda Cooper-Jones kneels before the grave of her son, Ahmaud Arbery, at the New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Ga., to mark the one year anniversary of Ahmaud Arbery's death in Brunswick, Ga. The Justice Department announced federal hate crime charges Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the death of Arbery, who was killed while out for a run.(AP Photo/Lewis M. Levine, file)
In this May 25, 2020 file image from surveillance video, Minneapolis police Officers from left, Tou Thao, Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool, File)
In this May 25, 2020 file image from surveillance video, Minneapolis police Officers from left, Tou Thao, Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool, File)
FILE - This combo of booking photos provided by the Glynn County, Ga., Detention Center, shows from left, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan Jr. The Justice Department announced federal hate crime charges against the three men Wednesday, April 28,2021,  in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was killed while out for a run last year. All three are charged with one count of interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.(Glynn County Detention Center via AP)
FILE - This combo of booking photos provided by the Glynn County, Ga., Detention Center, shows from left, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan Jr. The Justice Department announced federal hate crime charges against the three men Wednesday, April 28,2021, in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was killed while out for a run last year. All three are charged with one count of interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.(Glynn County Detention Center via AP)
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