The primary demand of protestors in Ferguson, MO, is the prosecution of the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, Michael Brown. Not only protestors on the street, but elected African-American officials and activists like Jesse Jackson are also demanding the immediate arrest, and quick trial, of the officer. These public officials and figures often predict that the policeman will be convicted of one or another variety of homicide.
The history of the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of violence against African-American victims brought about with heavy public and political pressure hasn't been good for the alleged victims and those who conducted the prosecution.
Perhaps the worst outcome for a prosecutor was that experienced by district attorney Mike Nifong following his unsuccessful pursuit of rape charges made by an African-American woman against three Duke lacrosse players in 2006. The case was removed from his direction, the charges were dropped, and Nifong was disbarred for "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation," the only North Carolina prosecutor ever disbarred in pursuing the work of his office.
The other recent case that achieved the visibility of the Duke lacrosse case was the shooting death in Sanford, FL of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed African-American teen, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch guard. Initially released by the local police chief, six weeks after the shooting, following widespread protests and intense media coverage, Zimmerman was charged with murder by a special prosecutor appointed by Governor Rick Scott. Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder charges after a sensational and widely covered trial.
The fallout was not good for the prosecution. In particular, State Attorney Angela Corey was accused of extreme ineptness, and Alan Dershowitz charged that her actions "bordered on criminal conduct." In the aftermath of Zimmerman's acquittal, there was widespread discussion that the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, might bring federal charges against Zimmerman for a hate crime and violation of Martin's civil rights. But such a case would have involved an even higher level of proof than the disallowed murder charges, and was never seriously considered.
In retrospect, we can see that political pressure led to these unwise, or unwinnable, criminal prosecutions. Community outrage and political pressure are not good indicators of the viability of a criminal case. I won't, and can't, evaluate the strength of the case against the police officer who shot Brown. However, it is easy to see the same dynamic in operation as occurred in the Duke and Trayvon Martin cases. This has led the president to take a highly cautious approach to the case, which may be expected to also characterize the involvement of federal authorities, including Holder, in considering any criminal prosecution. And, in Ferguson, we must remember that the shooter was an on-duty law enforcement officer -- unlike Zimmerman.
But that won't stop people from demanding a prosecution, perhaps with increasing fury.
Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. His website is peele.net.