Justice Dept. pressed to explain Panthers dropped charges

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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is expected to approve Friday the sending of a second letter to the Justice Department, asking it to justify its decision in May to drop charges against members of the New Black Panther Party accused of intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place in the November election.

Martin Dannenfelser, staff director, said a majority of the commissioners were not satisfied with a response by the department to a June 16 letter, in which the commission said the decision to drop the case had caused it “great confusion” since the NBPP members were “caught on video blocking access to the polls, and physically threatening and verbally harassing voters.”

That letter said that even after a federal judge ruled that the department had won the case since the NBPP members failed to appear it court, it “took the unusual move of voluntarily dismissing the charges,” which, it said, sent “the wrong message entirely - that attempts at voter suppression will be tolerated and will not be vigorously prosecuted so long as the groups or individuals who engage in them fail to respond to the charges.”

Mr. Dannenfelser said the commission, an independent fact-finding body, could hold hearings on its own in the case and call witnesses to testify, or it could conduct its own inquiry and make referrals for action to the federal government.

But he questioned who would enforce any subpoenas the commission might issue or who would act on any referrals it might approve — both would be directed to the Justice Department.

In an undated letter received by the commission June 20, the Justice Department said the complaint was dismissed because “the facts and the law did not support” the accusations, and came after a “careful and thorough review by Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King.”

The department also noted in its letter, made public Thursday by Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler, that the NBPP member who wielded the nightstick, King Samir Shabazz, was named in a separate judgment prohibiting him from “displaying a weapon within 100 feet of any open polling location of any election day in the city of Philadelphia.”

The letter also said a judgment against a second Panther, Jerry Jackson, was not sought because police called to the polling place ordered Samir Shabazz to leave but allowed Mr. Jackson, a certified Democratic poll watcher, to stay.

According to its letter, the department also did not seek a default judgment against Malik Zulu Shabazz, the NBPP leader accused of having managed and directed the polling place incident, because the evidence did not support the accusations. It said the party posted statements on its Web site specifically disavowing the activities at the polling place and suspended the Philadelphia charter because of its activities.

Earlier this week, Commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds said the Justice Department’s response to why it dismissed the case was “weak,” adding that he feared the legal precedent set in the case might encourage “other hate groups” to act similarly at polling locations in the future.

Mr. Reynolds, a former deputy associate attorney general and assistant secretary of education for the Office for Civil Rights under President George W. Bush, also charged that other groups might not have been treated so leniently.

“If you swap out the New Black Panther Party in this case for neo-Nazi groups or the Ku Klux Klan, you likely would have had a different outcome,” he said.

In January, career lawyers at Justice filed a civil complaint in Philadelphia against the New Black Panther Party, but four months later, Justice officials dropped the charges after Ms. King, in her acting role as a political appointee, met with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 political appointee.

Mr. Perrelli ultimately approved the decision, according to interviews with department officials who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

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