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Nelson’s Jeopardy

It’s going to be illuminating to see how the civil rights community reacts to one of the defenses Lemrick Nelson is likely to raise against charges that he violated the civil right of Yankel Rosenbaum in killing him during the Crown Heights riot. The lawyer who won acquittal of Mr. Nelson on the state charges, Arthur Lewis, is quoted by The New York Times this week as asserting that the civil rights charge is a “wrongful” prosecution. “It amounts to double jeopardy,” The Times quotes him as saying.

Generally the courts have spurned this defense under the civil rights law. The theory is that the civil rights charges are not brought by the same people — the people of New York brought the murder charge against Mr. Nelson, the people of America are bringing the civil rights case against him — and that even though the charges stem from the same act on the part of Mr. Nelson, they are not being lodged under the same law. Nor were many voices raised against the Bush administration’s decision to use civil rights law to prosecute the police officers who beat Rodney King after they’d been acquitted under California law.

In any event, prosecutors of Lemrick Nelson are going to have a harder time than the prosecutors of Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, because the civil rights law holds law enforcement officers to a particularly high standard.

What can be said at the moment is that the federal prosecution is a vote of no-confidence in the jury that acquitted Mr. Nelson the first time and later feted Mr. Nelson at a dinner party. It is a sad day when a law crafted to bring justice to Southern counties in the grip of Jim Crow has to be used to try to wrest justice from the citizens of New York for the murder of a Jew by a mob of black youths.

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