We’ll soon know whether the U.S. Department of Justice considers the gunning down of Skittles-carrying Florida teen, Trayvon Martin, a federal hate crime. (See here, here.) But the national outcry over Florida’s failure to arrest Martin’s killer and the fact that DOJ has had to step in at all, just goes to show how fundamentally flawed our country’s criminal justice system can be when it comes to holding accountable those engaged in bigotry and violence.
In fact, as we’ve noted before, sometimes it’s only through litigation before civil juries that important facts about civil rights violations and hate crimes are discovered—facts that often could not have been obtained publicly through other means. In these cases, civil trials can allow a more diligent and sustained inquiry into the facts, in addition to, or in lieu of, a probe by government prosecutors.
Actually, buried in the news today is chilling story not unlike the Trayvon Martin case, which makes this point pretty well.
Yesterday, Deryl Dedmon, a young white Mississippi man, pleaded guilty to murder and a hate-crime and was sentenced to life in prison for the 2011 murder of James Craig Anderson, African-American man. The facts are beyond despicable - or dispute - since a surveillance camera captured most of it:
Anderson died after he was beaten and run over by a truck driven by Dedmon, according to police. Dedmon was part of a group of seven white youths from largely white Rankin County who decided to "go f**k with some niggers," after a night of partying and drinking, law enforcement officials have said, quoting some of the suspects in the case.
Smith has said the evidence indicated the suspects, who ranged in age from 17 to 19, "went out with the intention to harm and, in this case, kill a black man." According to investigators, they drove 16 miles in two vehicles from Rankin County to Jackson, where after exiting the highway, they found Anderson alone in a parking lot about 4 a.m. on June 26.
The white men allegedly beat Anderson repeatedly, yelling racial epithets. After the beating, Dedmon drove his Ford F-250 truck over him, leaving him to die, according to what some of the teens cooperating with police have told authorities.
“I was young and dumb, ignorant and full of hatred,” said Dedmon. And as reported by the New York Times:
Marches were held and some Jackson residents and civil rights leaders complained that the local police and prosecutors did not act quickly enough to arrest the seven white teenagers from a neighboring county who drove to Jackson in two vehicles on a hot June night with the intention of finding an African-American to harass.
What will happen to those other teenagers is likely to be revealed on Thursday when the results of a Justice Department hate crime investigation are aired in court, according to two people with detailed knowledge of the case.
We’ll see what DOJ decides to do. But in addition, "The family has filed a wrongful death suit in the case against all seven teenagers who the police say were involved, including two girls." Said Morris Dees, a founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who is working with the family and their lawyer, Winston J. Thompson III, “the family would continue to push for a civil trial so that more about the case could be revealed. ‘You continue to see this around the country, the systematic targeting of black people. That’s what happened here and that’s what happened in Florida.’”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been the most effective group in the nation using tort suits to bankrupt and shut down hate groups. So next time you hear folks complaining about lawsuits and wanting to limit victims’ access to the civil courts, it might be good to think about the families of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson, the terrifying rise of hate groups in America today, and how civil litigation might protect us all.