Don’t believe it. In the end, the feds will almost surely decide not to charge Wilson—and even if they did charge him, he’d probably still walk free. In all likelihood, the St. Louis grand jury’s decision marks the end of Wilson’s criminal prosecution. Federal law surrounding racially motivated police shootings is unaccountably convoluted and hopelessly muddled. But one thing is clear: In their current form, our federal civil rights laws let cops pull the trigger with near-total impunity.
It wasn’t always that way. The law under which Holder could theoretically charge Wilson, now called Section 242, was passed in 1870 to secure robust legal protections for newly freed blacks in the South. Congress had recently passed amendments guaranteeing former slaves citizenship, equal protection of the laws, due process, and voting rights, which the states (including several under Reconstruction in the South) then ratified. But a number of viciously racist groups, including the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, had effectively negated these new rights, terrorizing black communities through arson, beatings, and lynching.
Congress had already passed laws requiring Southern states to recognize their black citizens’ newfound freedoms. But violent groups like the KKK were often aided if not led by local governments and law enforcement. Blacks suddenly had a vastly expanded roster of rights, yet racist officials and crooked cops were colluding to ensure that they couldn’t exercise any of them. So Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 1870, part of which survives today as Section 242. As its title suggests, the act enforced the new amendments by making it a federal crime to deprive any person of his constitutional rights while acting “under color of any law.”