U.S. Files Civil Rights Charges Against 4 Officers in King Case : Indictments: Federal prosecutor says beating ‘was an unreasonable use of force.’ If convicted, each man faces up to 10 years in prison and fines.
Federal prosecutors unsealed a two-count indictment against four Los Angeles police officers Wednesday, reigniting the explosive legal battle over the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King with new charges that the officers violated King’s civil rights.
The indictment was handed up by a federal grand jury late Tuesday but was sealed until Wednesday morning so that prosecutors could notify local authorities, said Lourdes G. Baird, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California. Charged in the indictment are the same four officers--Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and officers Timothy W. Wind, Laurence M. Powell and Theodore J. Briseno--who were tried in state court earlier this year and acquitted on all but one count.
“The defendants are charged with stomping, kicking and beating Mr. King,” Baird said during a morning news conference called to announce the indictments. “It was an unreasonable use of force.”
Baird’s announcement capped an intense federal investigation, which began immediately after the beating but was suspended when the state filed charges against the LAPD officers. It was reopened after the not guilty verdicts were announced April 29 and rioting erupted in Los Angeles. Powell was the only officer not acquitted on all charges, and he faces a retrial in state court this fall on the one count for which the jury could not reach a verdict.
According to the first count of the federal indictment, Wind, Powell and Briseno “did willfully strike with batons, kick and stomp Rodney Glen King . . . resulting in bodily injury.”
Koon, the senior officer at the scene, was the lone officer indicted on the second count. He will be tried on a charge that he allowed the beating to take place, depriving King of his right to be free from harm while in custody.
If convicted, each officer could face up to 10 years in prison and be fined as much as $250,000.
Even with the indictments announced Wednesday, the federal investigation is continuing and more charges could be brought against the four officers or others, Baird and other officials said.
The not guilty verdicts handed down by a Ventura County jury outraged many residents and touched off the worst American riots of the 20th Century. An array of local leaders and activists on Wednesday applauded the federal government’s decision to indict the officers on new charges.
“I think that this action is going to help bring about a sense of confidence on the part of the people that this system is now working,” Mayor Tom Bradley said. “They want to see it pursued to the end.”
But retired Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said the federal government’s decision to indict the officers was a misuse of the civil rights law and risked making martyrs out of the four men.
“It’s dumb, dumb, dumb,” Gates said. “I can’t tell you how dumb it is for the federal government to go forward with this.”
Gates’ successor, Police Chief Willie L. Williams, declined to comment.
Most of the officers and their lawyers could not be reached for comment. But Michael P. Stone, Powell’s lawyer, held a morning news conference and said he expects that his client will be acquitted if jurors can be persuaded to focus on the evidence in the case. A pale and drawn Powell stood next to his attorney and reiterated that he did nothing wrong.
“What can I say? I’m not real happy about it, but I know I didn’t do anything wrong so I can’t believe they’re doing this again to me,” Powell said. “But I still stand by the fact that I didn’t do anything wrong. I just did what I was supposed to do.”
Prosecutors, however, said they have reviewed the evidence and believe they have a strong case.
“The federal grand jury evidence . . . has been evaluated by career prosecutors,” Baird said. “The unanimous conclusion is that the evidence amply supports the charges that are reflected in the indictment.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Charlie J. Parsons, who heads the Los Angeles office of the FBI, said as many as 17 agents have worked full time on the investigation of the King beating since the not guilty verdicts were handed down in state court.
“This is not a normal case,” Parsons said. “This case has had a profound effect on law enforcement. It’s had a profound effect on the community. It caused a riot.”
In the wake of that riot, many local leaders criticized Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner for failing to win convictions against the officers. Historically, federal civil rights laws often have been used to charge officers who escaped vigorous local prosecutions, most notably in the Deep South.
On Wednesday, however, Baird said the federal government’s decision to seek indictments was not meant as a challenge to the district attorney.
“There has been and is a very significant federal interest from the time that this incident came up,” Baird said. “The return of this indictment is no indictment against the efforts of the district attorney’s office.”
Prosecutors from the two offices were planning to meet this week to discuss the cases and to figure out how to proceed against Powell. A state trial date of Oct. 19 has been set for Powell’s retrial on the remaining count of excessive force under color of authority, but might be delayed or even precluded by the federal case.
At a news conference Wednesday, King’s attorney, Steven A. Lerman, said federal prosecutors would win convictions, but only if King is allowed to testify. In the state trial, neither side called King to the stand and many observers later said it had led to the not guilty verdicts.
“I don’t think there’s any question that for the prosecution to be successful this time, they will have to call Rodney King as a witness, " Lerman said. “And he looks forward to it.”
Federal prosecutors would not comment on whether they would call King, but they are reviewing the earlier case for ideas on how to conduct this one. Although that gives them an advantage, they also face a tougher burden this time.
State prosecutors needed only to show that excessive force was used against King, but their federal counterparts need to show that the officers not only deprived King of his civil rights but that they “willfully” did so.
They do not, however, need to prove that the beating was racially motivated.
That is because the indictments charge the officers with depriving King of his right to be safe while in police custody, secure in his person and free from intentional use of unreasonable force. Those rights extend to all citizens, regardless of their race, and any government officer who violates them intentionally can be charged under the federal statute.
But while racial motivation does not need to be proved, it could be introduced to help demonstrate that the officers’ actions were a willful attempt to deprive King of his rights.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven Clymer said he could not comment on the case or what approach prosecutors might adopt, but he said racial animus can be introduced in civil rights cases to show the state of mind of the defendants.
The federal investigation of the King beating has attracted attention at the highest levels of government. President Bush, for instance, announced in a nationally televised speech that he was stunned by the not guilty verdicts in state court. With Bush in a tight battle for reelection, some pundits speculated that the federal indictments were timed to help the President’s campaign.
Asked whether he thought the indictments were politically motivated, Powell replied: “Sure. Bush is the one who asked for it.”
Baird, whom Bush recently nominated for a federal judgeship, denied that politics played a role in the investigation or the indictments.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “There has been no direction by anyone in the Department of Justice or the White House that we were to have indictments by any date. We were given full discretion and leash to be able to do what we felt was appropriate.”
Attorneys for the officers were contacted Wednesday morning, and all four men will be asked to surrender to federal authorities, Baird said. They are expected to appear before a magistrate this morning and return on Monday for arraignment.
In the state case, lawyers for the officers successfully argued that pretrial publicity made it impossible to find an impartial jury in Los Angeles, and the case was moved to Simi Valley. But even in the wake of the riots and the extraordinary public scrutiny the unrest has focused on the federal case, it is less likely this trial will be moved, experts said. Changes of venue in federal court are much rarer than they are in state court.
The Central District of California includes seven counties and 16 million people, and Stone said he did not expect the change of venue issue to be a significant one because of the large jury pool. Baird agreed.
“I am very confident that we can find a fair and impartial jury,” she said.
No date has been set for the federal trial, though some people close to the case said they hoped it would reach a judge before the end of the year.
Many issues could complicate the schedule, among them the question of who will represent the officers.
The Police Protective League spent about $500,000 for the officers’ legal fees during the state trial. That expenditure, combined with its sponsorship of an unsuccessful campaign against Charter Amendment F, the police reform measure, have left its treasury depleted, a source said Wednesday. As a result, the union may not be able to spend as much on the legal defense for this case, and if new lawyers need to be appointed it could delay the trial for months.
Koon’s attorney, Darryl Mounger, said Wednesday that he would not be representing the police sergeant. Mounger declined to comment on whether money was a factor, saying only that he has several other complicated cases pending and could not take on the federal trial.
Whenever the case is heard, there is agreement among officials and community leaders that it will be argued under a microscope, and many residents who were dismayed by the outcome of the state case said they will watch this one closely.
State Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who was at Baird’s news conference, said she was thrilled about the indictments, but added that Wednesday’s announcement only begins the new case.
“Now,” she said, “I’m going to pray for justice.”
Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Rich Simon contributed to this story.