This summer I am assisting government attorneys in the prosecution of civil rights abuses as an intern in Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division – Criminal Section. Among other duties, the Criminal Section is charged with prosecuting human trafficking, deprivation of rights under color of law, official misconduct, and hate crimes.
Much of my work so far has been helping to prosecute corrections department officers who engage in excessive force or sexual extortion against inmates. For instance, I was recently involved in preparing jury instructions for a prison beating case in Georgia, and I also reconstructed a chain of custody from investigative testimony so that the government can offer a semen sample into evidence. Both cases involve tragic stories of abuse by government officers over a span of several years. In cases like these, prosecution by the Criminal Section is vital to the penal system’s legitimacy. Our nation is committed to having a government of laws rather than a government of men, and that commitment extends to prisons and corrections facilities. The law may deprive a convicted person of certain liberties, but a criminal conviction does not strip a person of inalienable human dignity or the rights of bodily integrity. Officers who prey on the vulnerabilities of prison inmates turn the justice system into a tool of injustice. Hopefully, the involvement of the Criminal Section will bring clarity to these situations and will vindicate the rights of the victims.
Another aspect of my work has been helping with the Cold Case Initiative. Since 2006, the FBI has been reinvestigating unsolved murders that were committed before the 1970s and were based on racial animus. The Civil Rights division has the task of assessing whether these murders are still prosecutable, and then issuing a report on what the evidence tended to show and why the matter was never resolved. This project involves an overwhelming volume of investigative files that have recently been unsealed for the first time in decades. During my work I have had the chance to read through a number of transcripts and summaries of witness interviews and statements by victims and suspects regarding events as early as 1946. This experience has been a privileged look into some of the darker moments in civil rights history – moments when whole communities seem to have been involved in obstruction of justice after a serious crime had occurred. Reading through the investigative files has helped me to appreciate more than ever the work of the Civil Rights Division in general and the Criminal Section in particular. When the Criminal Section prosecutes a hate crime, it not only seeks justice for the victim, but also has an expressive purpose. Civil rights prosecutions signal the nation’s promise to protect the equal dignity of all people, especially where a minority group has been the historic target of abuse.
I would like to thank the attorneys who I have already been privileged to work with, my attorney mentor and supervisor, the Human Rights Center, and the donors who sponsored my fellowship. The opportunity to work at the Criminal Section has already been a formative experience for me, and I am sure that the remainder of the summer will have a positive impact on my future.
The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.