What did I think of the Zimmerman verdict? 1983

After a few minutes of heartsickness, the first thing I thought was: 1983.

That isn’t a date. That’s a federal statute. It’s full citation is 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

As it happened, it was enacted in 1871, at the behest of President Ulysses S. Grant, and is known as the Klu Klux Klan Act, because it’s purpose was to mitigate the injustice of KKK murders in states with justice systems barely functional enough to put white defendants on trial for murdering non-whites, let alone to seat a fair, mixed-race jury and get convictions.

When states’ criminal processes were so weak that there could be no justice, the federal government stepped in with this law, so that if a murderer was found not guilty in state court, he could be brought to federal trial for depriving someone — the victim — of his civil right to live.

It is a basic, essential civil right, wouldn’t you say?

I have known about 1983 for many years, since I worked for civil rights lawyers, so that’s why I thought of this after I heard of the Zimmerman verdict.

I was listening to the radio, though, and heard some extraordinarily stupid, ignorant people — lawyers! CBS News radio experts! — say that the feds won’t be able to try Zimmerman under 1983, won’t be able to make a case. I began muttering at the radio. Because although the law does state that an action can be brought only against a public official, i.e., a cop, it also specifies a person acting “under color of state law.” And the state law in question here would be Florida’s insane and primitive stand-your-ground law, which was the “color” under which Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. No, Zimmerman was not a police officer; but he was a cop wanna-be, a dangerous and pretentious “neighborhood watch” vigilante and I have read that 1983 has applied to security personnel.

And if only public officials were potential defendants under this law, why was it called the Klu Klux Klan Act? If I recall, the only uniforms the KKK wears are white sheets.

But it ain’t just dumb Southern lawyers saying this. Apparently, Eliot Spitzer has expressed a similar opinion and added a flourish: gee, he said, you know we have this firm legal principle in this country of double jeopardy. You can’t try somebody who’s been found not guilty for that same crime in another court.

Gee, Eliot, no. Not for the same crime. The federal statute does not cover murder, which is as we all know usually a state crime.

But it does cover civil rights. So you can indict someone and put him on trial again for the same crime, even if the crime is couched as a violation of someone’s civil rights.

You might want to read 42 U.S.C. § 1983, right here. It’s short.

And just in case you’d like to know why we have such a law in this country — a law that actually should apply precisely in this case, as a way for Trayvon Martin’s family to understand that we as a country will not stand for their son being shot dead just for walking along, just for being — here’s some history. (I grabbed this from Wikipedia, although I’m never sure about their facts, but the other histories I looked at were not inviting.)

If the Department of Justice determines that they will not be able to prosecute George Zimmerman under 1983, I want Eric Holder or the head of his civil rights division to explain why, in detail. Because I realize that my perception of this law comes under Pope’s description of “a little learning.” So if you can’t apply the law, DOJ, you’ll have to give me a deeper education.


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