— A Hasidic driver accidentally hit and killed a 7-year-old black boy in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in August 1991, sparking rioting. A black man, Charles Price, egged on a crowd of onlookers to "get the Jews." The angry mob set upon another Hasidic Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum. He was stabbed by black teenager Lemrick Nelson. Nelson was acquitted in state court of second-degree murder charges. The federal government followed with civil rights charges against Nelson and Price. After their first federal convictions were overturned on appeal, Price pleaded guilty and Nelson was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
— Six Shenandoah Valley, Pa., high school football players headed home from a block party encountered Luis Ramirez, 25, and his girlfriend in July 2008. A fight ensued. Federal officials said the teens yelled racial epithets and "Go back to Mexico" as they beat Ramirez. He died of head injuries. Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak were acquitted of most charges in state court. The federal government stepped in, and Piekarsky and Donchak were convicted under a federal law prohibiting housing discrimination, because they were trying to force Latinos out of Shenandoah. Donchak also was convicted of conspiring with local police to cover up the crime. Both were sentenced to nine years in prison. The city's police chief was sentenced to 13 months in prison for the cover-up.
COLOR OF LAW
Many federal civil rights cases involve police or other authorities abusing their power under "the color of law." Unlike in hate crime cases, prosecutors don't have to prove that these civil rights violations were motivated by racism or other bias.
Still, the best-known convictions came in racially charged cases:
—Rodney King led law officers on a high-speed chase in March 1991 and, once stopped, was slow to obey their commands. Police reacted by kicking King, clubbing him with their batons and shocking him with stun guns, causing 11 skull fractures. A witness' video of white policemen pummeling a black man as he lay on the ground played over and over on national television. Four Los Angeles officers were charged with assault; a jury with no black members acquitted them. The verdicts sparked rioting that set Los Angeles aflame and cost 55 lives, prompting King's famous plea "Can we all get along?" The Justice Department charged the officers with civil rights violations. After a second trial, two were convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Two were acquitted.
— In the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, police gunned down 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who were unarmed, and wounded four others as they tried to cross the Danzinger Bridge to what they hoped was safety. Police officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports to cover up the Sept. 4, 2005, shootings. A Louisiana district judge threw out murder and attempted murder charges against seven officers after ruling that secret grand jury testimony had been wrongly used against them. The Justice Department moved in with a civil rights investigation and won prison terms ranging from 38 to 65 years for four officers involved in the shooting; other officers were sentenced in the cover-up.
NO FEDERAL CHARGES
Prosecuting civil rights cases isn't easy. Just because the U.S. Justice Department investigates the possibility, such as in the Trayvon Martin shooting, doesn't mean a case will move forward. Prosecutors may not believe there is enough evidence that an attack was motivated by bias or that police officers willfully violated someone's rights. These investigations can take months, even years.
Some cases the Justice Department investigated under great public pressure but hasn't prosecuted:
— The March 1991 slaying of a black teenager in Los Angeles bears striking similarities to the Martin case. Korean-American grocer Soon Ja Du suspected that 15-year-old Latasha Harlins intended to steal a bottle of orange juice. The two got into a physical altercation, and Du fatally shot the girl. Police said the money for the juice was in Latasha's hand when she died. Du claimed self-defense. Unlike the Trayvon case, the incident was recorded by security cameras, which showed Latasha turning away seconds before she was shot. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to probation and community service. Anger over the light sentence touched off protests and fed racial tensions that boiled over in the 1992 LA riots. Under pressure to bring a civil rights case, the Justice Department opened an investigation, but Du wasn't charged.