ACLU Reverses Its Position on Retrying George Zimmerman

Video via The Orlando SentinelVideo via The Orlando SentinelIn my column last week, I noted that the American Civil Liberties Union had endorsed the idea of bringing federal charges against George Zimmerman following his acquittal by a state court in the death of Trayvon Martin. In a statement issued on July 14, the day after the verdict, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said "it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime." But four days later, the ACLU offered a little-noticed "clarification" in the form of a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder from Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, and Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel in that office:

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. Even though the Supreme Court permits a federal prosecution following a state prosecution, 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. 

As Politico's Josh Gerstein notes, that position is consistent with the ACLU's official policy on serial prosecutions, which says, "There should be no exception to double jeopardy principles simply because the same offense may be prosecuted by two different sovereigns." The ACLU abandoned that policy after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, when there was a split within the organization about whether they should be tried again in federal court. The group reaffirmed its opposition to double jeopardy in the form of successive state and federal prosecutions the following year.

It looks like the Zimmerman case has caused similar divisions among the ACLU's leaders between those whose primary concern is "racial justice" and those who prioritize civil liberties, the organization's raison d'etre. I am still waiting to hear back from ACLU media relations liaison Briana Ryan about Romero's demand for a federal investigation. If and when she calls, I will also ask about Murphy and McCurdy's contradiction of Romero.

[Thanks to Shawn Garner for the tip.]

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  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Hmm, so they abandoned it when Rodney King was the victim, and they abandoned it (temporarily, it seems) when Trayvon Martin was the victim.

    I hate to be paranoid, but am I noticing a trend here?

  • RBS||

    When something as nebulous as "racial justice" is your goal then you're free to alter your principles accordingly.

  • Enough About Palin||

    "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

  • sarcasmic||

    Principles? The left doesn't have any principles. They only have principals. What matters is the people involved, not the actual events. Just the people.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    If you only alter your principles in one direction, though, and that is contingent on the race of the victim, then I think it's fair to say you're being bigoted.

  • John Thacker||

    Members of the ACLU consider Zimmerman worse than Nazis?

  • Enough About Palin||

  • creech||

    Sure he threw the first punch, because he had profiled Zimmerman as a creepy ass cracker and homosexual rapist. So why not ambush the guy, and throw the first punch, instead of hanging up on Jeantel and dialing 911 instead.

  • JohnD||

    You are a moron.

  • sarcasmic||

    You should recalibrate your sarcasm detector.

  • Luddite||

    Because it's far easier to play the aggrieved race card than it is to actually - you know - act like a man.

    Of course the results are tragic, but dammit, this is what happens when people think that boogeymen are out to get them at all times. "Down with whitey" and all that jazz.

  • free2booze||

    Nice to see Jeantel has received so much fame and attention from the blood of her dead friend. I look forward to seeing her in the next Tyler Perry sitcom.

  • Omni||

    Do not venture into the comments section. Atomic levels of stupid and willfull ignorance of the actual facts.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Lady Justice may be blind, but the ACLU makes sure it can see color just fine.

  • Enough About Palin||

    ^^THIS^^

  • ||

    Good - let them eat themselves and maybe a principled organization will arise in its place.

  • Floridian||

    I'm confused by the article. Did they really reverse their position or did the dissenters express their opinion? If they reversed their opinion then good for them to admit they made a mistake. If it is internal rivalry they should purge the ones not dedicated to civil liberties.

  • Lyle||

    I read the same way you read it. The dissenters got out their views.

    The ACLU is controlled by the "racial justice" types and not the civil liberties types at the national level. At the local level it seems hit or miss.

    Both sides have been battling each other for years it seems.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    It's interesting that - speaking of federalism - the ACLU is organized on a federalist basis, so that the ruminations of the national headquarters aren't the last word. Like federalism in the USA, it may be inefficient, but it leaves room for dissent and experimentation withing the organization, rather than "democratic centralism."

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    I should say that my reference to US federalism is to the way it's *supposed* to be, not the way it always is. And the ACLU seems to support federal centralization while rejecting centralization in its own organization. But if federalism is good for a private group, surely it's good for a large country like the USA, especially if you're worried about out-of-control governments. Letting the central government have a monopoly on power isn't really a recipe for civil liberties.

  • Lyle||

    Yep, couldn't agree more.

  • Wizard4169||

    Best I can tell, they came out against double jeopardy, so (limited) ups to the ACLU. Since Zimmerman faced a trial by jury and was found not guilty, he shouldn't be prosecuted again for the same offense, just because it's a different court. (Florida state Murder 2 charges vs. Fed "Civil rights" charges).

    OTOH, they don't seem to be 100% sure about this, which is why I'm not an ACLU member. Trying multiple legal gambits after the guy has already been acquitted strikes me as way too close to double jeopardy. Bringing in a federal case after a state court has had its say is bogus unless the state court was very obviously biased, and in this case it wasn't. Offered a "manslaughter" verdict instead of "Murder 2", the jury still chose to acquit. These people clearly didn't think Zimmerman had committed a crime.

  • Floridian||

    I'm not a protestor because I have a job but if the Feds go after Z after his acquittal I would be tempted to protest.

  • Jeff||

    Racial justice or actual justice: choose any one.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    The protests and initial legal outrage by some lawyers were never rooted in "principles" to begin with. They attempted to set a racial narrative that simply didn't fit the facts. It's no surprise they will eventually whither into an abyss of nothingness. The problem is, how much damage will they leave behind in the meantime? The assault on basic legal concepts like "self-defense" and "jury by peers" and "innocent until proven guilty" can leave quite the shit stain.

  • JohnD||

    Any time I hear "racial justice", it tells me that someone wants to ignore black crime because they are "held back" by society.

    I'm calling BS on Racial Justice.

  • Dave Krueger||

    The states haven't been "sovereigns" in any meaningful sense of the term since the Civil War. States are now nothing but branch offices of the federal government.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Not even remotely close to the truth.

  • Wizard4169||

    Try "Wickard v. Filburn" That case basically said the feds could do any damn thing they please. Where, exactly, does any sense of State sovereignty fit into that? Since then, the Supremes have found against the Feds, what, once? (US v. Lopez) If you can find any other cases where the SCOTUS has found that the states have any rights (other than what Congress has magnanimously granted them), I'd love to hear about it. Any Court that can find Obamacare even remotely constitutional clearly doesn't give a flying fletch about state authority. Just look at Raich v. Gonzalez for what the SCOTUS thinks about "states' rights".

  • ||

    Agreed. Raich is probably the most bogus SCOTUS case, with the most specious "logic" I can recall.

    Scalia lost hyooge credibility with me in that case, a justice who CLAIMS to be a strict constructionist and who had links to federalist societies etc. With Raich, the commerce clause essentially became an all encompassing way for the feds to get their grimy paws into anything and everything

  • Wizard4169||

    Yeah, I used to be a fan of Scalia, but he's long since sold out to his love of the State. In our modern age of easy travel, it's impossible to imagine anything that doesn't "potentially" impact interstate commerce. The Commerce Clause was meant to prevent trade wars between coastal and land-locked states and maintain the US as an internal free-trade zone. Interpreting it beyond that basically nullifies the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, and gives the FedGov an absolute monopoly over anything they choose to regulate, making an absolute mockery of any conception of federalism.

    If that's "conservative", then that's the reason I don't don't call myself a conservative anymore.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    U.S. v. Morrison.

    Also, states have general police powers, which means they are in control of the criminal justice system in 99.9% of cases. In order for your marriage, divorce, or birth to be valid, you have to go through the state. Your state administers the school system you or your children attend.

    To say that there is no power within the states is absurd. Hey, if you want to say the Federal Government is too powerful, that's fine, but don't overstate your case with rank hyperbole.

  • ||

    I don't know about 99.9% but it's certainly true the VAST majority of criminal cases are state level charges (or municipal or county level).

    The problem is that the feds have gotten more and more power over the last few decades and greatly expanded their jurisdiction over crime (cases like Raich). They've always had jurisdiction in, for example, bank robbery, interstate crimes, etc. etc. but with cases like Raich, even PURELY intrastate stuff has come under federal jurisdiction, and it's not supposed to work that way.

  • Wizard4169||

    I stand by my statement that the states have only what power the Feds allow them. I will freely grant that the states actually exercise the power most of the time, but only within the limits the Feds allow. (And hey, my bad on Morrison. You're correct there. 'kay, then, two vs., um, how many in favor of National (they've long since outstripped any conception of federal) power?)

  • Dave Krueger||

    Just because the federal government still allows states to do some things, doesn't mean the states have power. It just means the federal government hasn't gotten around to taking over those things yet.

    Even though the states control most criminal justice functions, the federal government will step in when they think they can get away with it. That's why we have so much duplication (and there is A LOT of duplication). Criminal law includes environmental protection, labor law, drugs, alcohol, guns, banking, pornography, voting rights, product safety, use of the airwaves, transportation (airports, highways, speed limits, etc), education, taxes, etc, etc. The federal government dominates all of these.

    You only need look at the drug war to tell who is in control of criminal justice in the U.S. As states begin to legalize pot, federal law still takes precedence.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Oh, oh, exactly the truth. See 5 USC 100-105, Federal areas within States.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Through the Buck Act, the Feds have jurisdiction over federal "persons", and that's everyone with a Social Security number, among other things. Learn the difference between the "State of California" and the "state of California". General Motors is just a name. It doesn't actually have to have anything to do with motors, it could be a candy company.

  • ||

    Props to the ACLU. I mentioned this in a post, per Volokh.com that has been covering this. Imnsho, prosecuting somebody federally after a state trial *is* double jeopardy, even though the case law says otherwise. The most famous example of this for most people is the Rodney King trial. Despite the fact that several of the officer were, imnsho, guilty as fuck, it was still a gross injustice from a process angle (and it's all about process when you are talking con law) to try them in Simi Valley under the federal charges.

    I'll be surprised if they try Z federally. The FBI already did an investigation, interviewed 3 dozen people and found no evidence that Z has a racist bone in his body. He's definitely a busybody, but also the record of his 911 calls shows he's plenty willing to call 911 on "suspicious males" regardless of race.

  • Wizard4169||

    The explanation I've recently heard is that DOJ isn't remotely interested in TRYING Zimmerman; they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They can say to the race-baiters, "Hey, we're investigating!" while saying to everyone else, "We haven't brought any charges!", thereby pleasing everyone. I find this quite easy to believe, especially with that weasel Holder as AG. (My apologies to weasels everywhere.)

  • ||

    I think that analysis is accurate. Whenever there is this level of public outcry over a shooting (we see it all the time with cop shootings), the feds will "conduct an investigation' to placate but most of the time won't press charges. I actually read this letter they sent on one of their investigations and they listed as the #1 factor in their decision to investigate one of our shootings, the level of public dischord over the shooting. Iow, it's not so much the fact pattern that spurs them to investigate, but the level of public unhappiness. It's a squeaky wheel getting the grease thing.

  • OldMexican||

    It looks like the Zimmerman case has caused similar divisions among the ACLU's leaders between those whose primary concern is "racial justice" and those who prioritize civil liberties, the organization's raison d'etre.


    Correction: The organization's stated raison d'etre. It is possible some of the purists in the ACLU are taking their stated purpose a little too seriously, which is generating the entertaining schizophrenia that we're witnessing.

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