There is no question that the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has captured the nation’s attention. The local police department’s allegedly inadequate investigation and insistence that the shooter George Zimmerman remain free, with no criminal charges, has led to an eruption in social media, the creation of numerous online petitions, and even for the Justice Department to launch an investigation into possible civil rights violations of the slain teenager. One voice has been missing from the public outcry: President Barack Obama.
As the first black president, Barack Obama is frequently called on to comment on public controversies, particularly when that controversy involve issues of race. When he commented on the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, saying the police officer who arrested the diminutive Ivy League professor acted “stupidly” the criticism that followed was loud and swift. Since then, the president and the White House have appeared to be much more careful when wading into the waters of public debates.
That hands off policy remained throughout the case of Oscar Grant’s shooter and the execution of Troy Davis, to the angst of many who feel the black president should express the frustrations of black America when one of our own is facing such horrific injustice.
But in the case of Trayvon Martin, that desire is misguided. In fact, by making any public statements about the ongoing investigation, the White House could derail the family’s efforts to seek justice for their son.
All of the facts in this case are not known at this time. As the state’s attorney’s office continues with its investigation, in preparation for the grand jury empaneled for April 10th, interference — particularly the type done by outside groups and political figures — may do more harm than good for the Martin family.
In addition, the president, as the head of the executive branch of the federal government, should not make a public comment about an ongoing investigation that is in the hands of his independent Department of Justice. That would be completely inappropriate.
“It is important that the president not appear to have prejudged [the case],” says attorney B.J. Bernstein in an interview with theGrio. Bernstein has represented Genarlow Wilson and most recently two of the plaintiffs in the civil suit related to sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Eddie Long.
In 2005, at the age of 17, Genarlow Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation for receiving oral sex from a consenting classmate who was 15 years old at the time. Wilson was imprisoned for two years before Bernstein won his release. Wilson’s long imprisonment created a similar public outcry to the Martin case and calls for political figures to weigh in and call for Wilson’s release, including then President George W. Bush.
Bernstein emphasized that any case, whether state or federal, will either be “The State” versus George Zimmerman or “The United States” versus George Zimmerman, so public comments from the president “would be seen as interference” with a law enforcement matter.
Furthermore, Bernstein disagrees with some critics and commenters who have argued that since President Obama called and offered his support to Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, he should also comment on the Trayvon Martin case.
“Sandra Fluke’s testimony before Congress was [related to] a law [The Affordable Care Act], and her testimony was meant to affect [a conversation about] policy,” Bernstein added.
“This case is still open,” said Bernstein, ”[This case has illustrated clearly] the impact of social media. [I wish I had] social media during the Genarlow Wilson case, but even back then the President [Bush] did not comment on the case. Once you are in office, the [ability to freely comment on everything] changes. Once you are in office, you cannot speak publicly [about ongoing law enforcement investigations].”
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