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Why Don't The Feds Prosecute Police Brutality Cases?

Police officers get the benefit of the doubt, says the Supreme Court.

More than two years have passed since NYPD Officer Richard Haste chased unarmed Ramarley Graham into his grandmother's home  in the Bronx and shot him dead in the bathroom. After a grand jury declined to reindict Haste in 2013 (a first indictment was thrown out by a judge due to a technicality), more than a year has passed since the U.S. Attorney's office promised to investigate the shooting.

The family has not heard a word from anyone about developments in the federal investigation of Graham's shooting.

A large crowd of supporters joined Graham's family at Foley Square in lower Manhattan earlier this month to protest the lack of information from the U.S. Attorney's office regarding its investigation.

"As a parent standing here talking to you, it's very frustratiing not knowing what happened to my child," Constance Malcolm, Ramarley Graham's mother, told AlterNet. "So this is the reason why we're here to deliver these petitions to the DOJ to let them know we are still watching them and we want answers to what happened to Ramarley."

Graham's family and supporters collected more than 33,000 signatures of support that were hand-delivered to the U.S. Attorney's Office, southern district. For Malcolm and her supporters, it showed how unacceptable they feel the silence has been.

"My attorney has been writing, emailing, calling. No answer," Malcolm said. "I think it's warranted enough as a mom to know what happened to my child. They owe me that, to sit down with me and have a meeting to let me know where they are at this point. They told us a year ago that they were going to investigate. August 8 passed. It's one year and we're still here, the same place we were last year. Nothing has happened. We want answers to why this is not going forward."

The lack of transparency from the federal level regarding people shot dead by law enforcement officers has sparked conversations over why federal cases can go months, or even years, without grieving families hearing a word.

Janet Johnson, a criminal defense attorney based in Jacksonville, Fla., told AlterNet she has three criminal cases she is defending in federal court. She expects the grand jury process to take six months to a year before it concludes. Like the Graham family, she hasn't heard a word from the feds on their progress. Federal silence on police brutality cases is no different. 

Why the feds go silent on such cases depends on who you ask. One explanation is that prosecutors don't give public statements during investigations, even to families and their lawyers. Another issue is that they don't like to take police brutality cases because they feel they are too difficult to win at the federal level. In state court, for example, prosecutors have more options to charge someone, making the chance of conviction much higher.

In the case of Darren Wilson, the cop who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 8, the feds would have a harder time making their case, Johnson said. At the federal level, prosecutors have fewer options and Johnson says the feds would have a hard time convicting Darren Wilson of any wrongdoing.

"The prosecution would have to prove that the only purpose for Darren Wilson to shoot Michael Brown was because he wanted to deprive him of his civil rights," Johnson said. "It's usually a very specific intent. It's usually a rogue cop who goes out and says, I'm going to get this guy because he's African American. There's some evil intent. It would be hard in this case because you could say he was over-zealous. You could say he was a bad cop, but it's hard to prove he acted only with an evil intention of depriving Mr. Brown of his civil rights."

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