Justice Department political appointees overruled career lawyers and ended a civil complaint accusing three members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of wielding a nightstick and intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place last Election Day, according to documents and interviews.
The incident - which gained national attention when it was captured on videotape and distributed on YouTube - had prompted the government to sue the men, saying they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by scaring would-be voters with the weapon, racial slurs and military-style uniforms.
Career lawyers pursued the case for months, including obtaining an affidavit from a prominent 1960s civil rights activist who witnessed the confrontation and described it as "the most blatant form of voter intimidation" that he had seen, even during the voting rights crisis in Mississippi a half-century ago.
The lawyers also had ascertained that one of the three men had gained access to the polling place by securing a credential as a Democratic poll watcher, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Times.
The career Justice lawyers were on the verge of securing sanctions against the men earlier this month when their superiors ordered them to reverse course, according to interviews and documents. The court had already entered a default judgment against the men on April 20.
A Justice Department spokesman on Thursday confirmed that the agency had dropped the case, dismissing two of the men from the lawsuit with no penalty and winning an order against the third man that simply prohibits him from bringing a weapon to a polling place in future elections.
The department was "successful in obtaining an injunction that prohibits the defendant who brandished a weapon outside a Philadelphia polling place from doing so again," spokesman Alejandro Miyar said. "Claims were dismissed against the other defendants based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law."
Mr. Miyar declined to elaborate about any internal dispute between career and political officials, saying only that the department is "committed to the vigorous prosecution of those who intimidate, threaten or coerce anyone exercising his or her sacred right to vote."
Court records reviewed by The Times show that career Justice lawyers were seeking a default judgment and penalties against the three men as recently as May 5, before abruptly ending their pursuit 10 days later.
People directly familiar with the case, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, said career lawyers in two separate Justice offices had recommended proceeding to default judgment before political superiors overruled them.
Tensions between career lawyers and political appointees inside the Justice Department have been a sensitive matter since allegations surfaced during the Bush administration that higher-ups had ignored or reversed staff lawyers and that some U.S. attorneys had been removed or selected for political reasons.
During his January confirmation hearings, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that during his lengthy Justice Department tenure, the career lawyers were "my teachers, my colleagues and my friends" and described them as the "backbone" of the department.
"If I am confirmed as attorney general, I will listen to them, respect them and make them proud of the vital goals we will pursue together," he said.
Justice officials declined to say whether Mr. Holder or other senior Justice officials became involved in the case, saying they don't discuss internal deliberations.
The civil suit filed Jan. 7 identified the three men as members of the Panthers and said they wore military-style uniforms, black berets, combat boots, battle-dress pants, black jackets with military-style insignias and were armed with "a dangerous weapon"and used racial slurs and insults to scare would-be voters and those there to assist them at the Philadelphia polling location on Nov. 4.
The complaint said the three men engaged in "coercion, threats and intimidation, ... racial threats and insults, ... menacing and intimidating gestures, ... and movements directed at individuals who were present to vote." It said that unless prohibited by court sanctions, they would "continued to violate ... the Voting Rights Act by continuing to direct intimidation, threats and coercion at voters and potential voters, by again deploying uniformed and armed members at the entrance to polling locations in future elections, both in Philadelphia and throughout the country."
To support its evidence, the government had secured an affidavit from Bartle Bull, a longtime civil rights activist and former aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Mr. Bull said in a sworn statement dated April 7 that he was serving in November as a credentialed poll watcher in Philadelphia when he saw the three uniformed Panthers confront and intimidate voters with a nightstick.
Inexplicably, the government did not enter the affidavit in the court case, according to the files.
"In my opinion, the men created an intimidating presence at the entrance to a poll," he declared. "In all my experience in politics, in civil rights litigation and in my efforts in the 1960s to secure the right to vote in Mississippi ... I have never encountered or heard of another instance in the United States where armed and uniformed men blocked the entrance to a polling location."
Mr. Bull said the "clear purpose" of what the Panthers were doing was to "intimidate voters with whom they did not agree." He also said he overheard one of the men tell a white poll watcher: "You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker."
He called their conduct an "outrageous affront to American democracy and the rights of voters to participate in an election without fear." He said it was a "racially motivated effort to limit both poll watchers aiding voters, as well as voters with whom the men did not agree."
The three men named in the complaint - New Black Panther Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, Minister King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson - refused to appear in court to answer the accusations over a near-five month period, court records said.
Justice Department Voting Rights Section Attorney J. Christian Adams complained in one court filing about the defendants' failure to appear or to file any pleadings in the case, arguing that Mr. Jackson was "not an infant, nor is he an incompetent person as he appears capable of managing his own affairs, nor is he in the military service of the United States."
Court records show that as late as May 5, the Justice Department was still considering an order by U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell in Philadelphia to seek judgments, or sanctions, against the three Panthers because of their failure to appear.
But 10 days later, the department reversed itself and filed a notice of voluntary dismissal from the complaint for Malik Zulu Shabazz and Mr. Jackson.
That same day, the department asked for the default judgment against King Samir Shabazz, but limited the penalty to an order that he not display a "weapon within 100 feet of any open polling location on any election day in the city of Philadelphia" until Nov. 15, 2012.
Malik Zulu Shabazz is a Washington, D.C., resident.
Mr. Jackson was an elected member of Philadelphia's 14th Ward Democratic Committee, and was credentialed to be at the polling place last Nov. 4 as an official Democratic Party polling observer, according to the Philadelphia City Commissioner's Office.
Efforts to reach the Panthers were unsuccessful. A telephone number listed on the New Black Panthers Web site had been disconnected.
The complaint said that the three men were deployed at the entrance to a Philadelphia polling location wearing the uniform of the New Black Panther Party and that King Samir Shabazz repeatedly brandished a police-style nightstick with a contoured grip and wrist lanyard.
According to the complaint, Malik Zulu Shabazz, a Howard University Law School graduate, said the placement of King Samir Shabazz and Mr. Jackson in Philadelphia was part of a nationwide effort to deploy New Black Panther Party members at polling locations on Election Day.
The New Black Panther Party reportedly has 27 chapters operating across the United States, Britain, the Caribbean and Africa. Its Web page said it has become "a great witness to the validity of the works of the original Black Panther Party," which was founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif.