For the ACLU, George Zimmerman case is awkward déjà vu
The American Civil Liberties Union is experiencing some uncomfortable déjà vu.
George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin has triggered the specter of an awkward and often raucous debate the group thought it had put behind itself two decades ago.
After the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of African-American Rodney King, ACLU leaders split sharply over the possibility of a federal trial for the officers. The group eventually suspended its policy opposing double jeopardy — only to reverse itself the following year.
“The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner,” he said Friday. “The juries [sic] were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.”
Meanwhile, the ACLU’s first public reaction drew notice in some quarters for leaning heavily toward racial justice — while staying silent on civil liberties and due process in the Florida case.
“Last night’s verdict casts serious doubt on whether the legal system truly provides equal protection of the laws to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement on July 14, the day after the Florida jury’s verdict. “This case reminds us that it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime.”
The statement went on to call for additional federal guidance on the use of race in law enforcement and for a new federal law aimed at ending racial profiling.
But it was the specific reference to an “imperative” for DOJ to investigate under criminal statutes — an apparent endorsement of the calls of many civil rights activists and groups for a federal prosecution of Zimmerman — that threatened to reopen old wounds.
That call came even though the ACLU’s long-standing policy, restored in 1993 after the King debate, explicitly rejects such an option. “There should be no exception to double jeopardy principles simply because the same offense may be prosecuted by two different sovereigns,” the policy says.
Romero’s statement stirred concern among some civil libertarians that in a rush to join the chorus of outrage over the Zimmerman verdict, the group had turned its back on the policy it settled on two decades ago.
In an apparent attempt to stem the controversy, a top ACLU official wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday to make clear that the group does not favor a second prosecution of Zimmerman in federal court.
“We are writing to clearly state the ACLU’s position on whether or not the Department of Justice (DOJ) should consider bringing federal civil rights or hate crimes charges as a result of the state court acquittal in the George Zimmerman case,” Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington office, wrote.
“The ACLU believes the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution protects someone from being prosecuted in another court for charges arising from the same transaction. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and that should be the end of the criminal case,” she wrote.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is continuing to investigate Martin’s shooting — and the department has even set up an email address to gather information about the case. However, Obama suggested Friday that those upset about the verdict would be unwise to expect a federal prosecution.
“I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here,” Obama said. “And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”
Romero, who provided Murphy’s letter to POLITICO, said Thursday there was no intent to change or depart from the double jeopardy policy.
“I think there are real serious concerns about going back on the double jeopardy policy. It is a slippery slope that if you allow the government to prosecute individuals for one crime and then fail and try again, it creates the wrong incentives for the criminal justice system,” Romero said in an interview on the outskirts of the Aspen Security Forum.
Romero acknowledged that cases like that of Trayvon Martin sometimes prompt disagreements within the organization, and often put the group at odds with other civil rights groups.
“Good civil libertarians will differ on this issue, like a lot of our issues that divide the membership or the leadership whether it’s campaign finance or whether it’s civil rights prosecutions after a failed trial,” he said. “The unique part of the ACLU is that we have to balance some of the concerns that we have that are long-standing, deep-seated values like racial justice against broader concerns about the administration of justice.”