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New York has a long history of ‘going federal’ when state cases fail

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NEW YORK (PIX11) – It wasn’t surprising to hear the U.S. Department of Justice was going to review the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case in Florida, after the “not guilty” verdict this past weekend.

The feds have taken this road many times before, here in New York, when a high-profile state case failed to get a conviction.

In 1988, after a Queens jury acquitted Genovese crime family associate, Carmine Gualtiere, of fatally shooting undercover NYPD Detective Anthony Venditti, federal prosecutors decided to take a crack at the case.  The first state trial against three, accused men had ended with a “hung” jury.  In the second trial, Gualtiere was found not guilty — and the new jury was deadlocked on the other two.  That’s when the feds crafted a racketeering indictment against all three men: Gualtiere, Federico Giovanelli, and Steven Maltese.  All three were convicted in 1989 on some criminal charges, but after more legal challenges, the government continued to fail to nail them for the murder.

In October 1992, when a largely-minority jury found Brooklyn teen, Lemrick Nelson not guilty of fatally stabbing Yankel Rosebaum, an Orthodox Jewish doctoral student, during the Crown Heights riots, federal prosecutors started their own review.  Nelson was convicted in a 1997 Eastern District trial — with the government arguing that Nelson violated Rosenbaum’s civil rights. But the first conviction was vacated, because an appeals court ruled the jury selection process was unfair.  The U.S. Attorney tried again and won a conviction in 2003.  Nelson served a total of ten years in prison.

After four, white Bronx police officers were found not guilty in 2000 in the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo — an immigrant vendor shot 41 times at his apartment door — Diallo’s family and influential New Yorkers asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the case. More than a year later,  the federal government declined to prosecute, saying it “….could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers willfully deprived Mr. Diallo of his constitutional right to be free from the use of unreasonable force.”

There was one, extremely high-profile case that went straight to federal court.  That was the 1997 police brutality incident involving Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima. Police Officer Justin Volpe of Brooklyn’s 71st Precinct initially pleaded “not guilty” to using a plunger to sodomize Louima in a station house bathroom. Louima suffered horrific injuries to his colon and rectum. Volpe changed his plea to “guilty” in the middle of the trial and was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison, where he remains today. Louima received an $8.75 million settlement from the City of New York, the highest pay-out in a police brutality case ever.