How The Justice Department Picks Its Civil Rights Cases

The NAACP is leading a campaign to persuade Attorney General Eric Holder to pursue federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman for the February fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Melissa Block speaks with William Yeomans, a former attorney with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, about what is involved in bringing these kinds of cases.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The NAACP says it's gathered more than one million signatures on a petition to the Justice Department. They want federal prosecutors to bring civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, for what they call the egregious violation of his right to life. The petition bid follows Zimmerman's acquittal on Saturday in state court. The Justice Department says it continues its investigation into the shooting and will decide whether federal prosecution is appropriate.

For more on how that decision is made and how likely a civil rights prosecution might be, we're joined by William Yeomans. He's a former lawyer with the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, currently a law professor at American University.

Professor Yeomans, thanks for coming in.

WILLIAM YEOMANS: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: How often is there a federal civil rights prosecution after a state acquittal?

YEOMANS: Well, it's fairly rare. The federal civil rights laws exist primarily as a backstop to state laws. But in the area of civil rights and some other areas, there is a sufficiently important federal interest that we have federal law that backs up the state law.

It does so primarily when there has either been some flaw in the state process; there is some peculiarity of state law that makes a conviction difficult; or it's simply a case of such magnitude that the federal interest is so large and has been un-vindicated that the federal government feels a need to go in.

BLOCK: And let's go back just a bit. The original civil rights statute passed back in 1968, if I understand this right, the idea was the Feds would step in when there were Southern all-white juries which basically miscarried justice, would not convict.

YEOMANS: That's right and that's why the law exists as a backstop. The federal government still defers in the first instance usually to the states. But Congress determined that it was necessary for there to be power in the federal government to step in because it was so difficult to achieve justice before Southern juries.

BLOCK: In the case of George Zimmerman shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, what would the government have to prove if it were to bring a civil rights prosecution? How high is that bar?

YEOMANS: Well, the law is fairly straight forward. As 18 U.S.C. 249, which is the new Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, prohibits the willful infliction of bodily harm because of race. So the difficult part of that, of course, is showing that when the defendant acted, he was motivated by race. So in this case, I think the government certainly will have to look at whether it can make an argument that George Zimmerman was motivated by race when he shot Trayvon Martin.

BLOCK: In looking at descriptions of some of the other cases that the Justice Department has brought, they do seem to highlight overt specific actions or speech, someone shouting white power, someone trying to burn a cross on somebody's lawn. Would it have to be that specific or could it be something like racial profiling?

YEOMANS: Yeah, no, it doesn't have to be that specific. You're right that if you look at most of the successful prosecutions, they involve some contemporaneous statement of racial hostility when the defendant is committing the crime or some long history of the defendant participating in a hate group. And that's the kind of evidence that makes a conviction much easier.

It's also possible, though, to build a case of racial motivation from evidence that is less direct and less overt. And it appears that that will be challenge here.

BLOCK: Based on your experience within the Civil Rights Division, how likely would you say it is that the federal government will bring civil rights charges?

YEOMANS: Well, I can't give a prediction, simply because I don't have all of the evidence and who knows what could come out in subsequent investigation. So I think it's always a mistake either to predict the outcome of an investigation or to put a timeline on it. It could be fairly quick or it could take a while if there is significant investigation to be done.

BLOCK: And how much does public opinion filter into those discussions at the Justice Department? I would think it would be really hard to shield yourself from that when there's so much attention to this case and so much human cry about it and demand for civil rights charges to be brought.

YEOMANS: Right. I think it's safe to say that no prosecutor, particularly in a highly visible case, would want to go forward without the necessary evidence. It would be much worse to go forward and fail than to not go forward, it seems to me. People in the civil rights division handled these kinds of cases all the time. They are used to dealing with the public outcry and they are used to understanding that they have to make a decision that is grounded entirely in the facts and the law.

BLOCK: Professor Yeomans, thanks again for coming in.

YEOMANS: It was my pleasure.

BLOCK: That's William Yeomans, former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. He's now a professor at American University School of Law.

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