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Racial Motive Need Not Be Proved in King Case : Trial: Federal jurist reverses stand. The ruling should aid prosecution of four officers accused in beating.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors in the federal trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged with violating Rodney G. King’s civil rights are not required to prove that the beating was racially motivated, the judge presiding over the case ruled Friday.

That ruling reverses a position that U.S. District Judge John G. Davies had expressed in several earlier orders, and it represents a ringing victory for prosecutors. They previously had acknowledged in court that they were not prepared to prove that the officers beat King because he is black.

Most observers agreed that if the prosecution had been required to show that, the case would have been nearly impossible to win.

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“The government, at trial, will not be required to prove racial motivation as an element of the offenses charged,” Davies said in a three-page order. “Alienage, color or race may be an element of the offense . . . but none of those factors is an element of the offense as charged in the indictment.”

The lead prosecutors in the case declined comment, as they have on virtually all developments, but the defense attorneys’ disappointment was evident.

“If we had won this ruling, there would have been no second Rodney King trial,” said Harland W. Braun, who represents Officer Theodore J. Briseno. “I had hoped we could avoid this second trial. Now we’re going to have to try this case in court.”

Davies’ brief order did not spell out his reasons for reconsidering his position, but he endorsed the arguments of prosecutors, who had filed a memorandum urging him to adopt their view of the civil rights law under which the officers are charged.

The prosecution argued that the officers illegally deprived King of his right to be safe from the intentional use of unreasonable force during arrest. That right is guaranteed under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, which applies to all citizens, regardless of their race.

Nevertheless, Davies previously had indicated that he believed the prosecution needed to show that King had been deprived of his rights “on account of (his) color or race,” in order to find the officers guilty of violating the civil rights law.

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In his ruling Friday, Davies reconsidered his reading of the law.

“If the judge had ruled that racial animus was required to be proven, he would have been grossly mistaken,” said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor. “And if he had done so, the government’s chances of securing a conviction would have, in all probability, been dealt a mortal blow.”

Along with Briseno, officers Laurence M. Powell and Timothy E. Wind are charged with violating King’s rights by willfully kicking, hitting and stomping him during his March 3, 1991, arrest. Sgt. Stacey C. Koon is charged with allowing officers under his command to carry out the beating.

If convicted, all four defendants could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $250,000 each.

Prosecutors still must show that the beating was an intentional use of unreasonable force, and that alone is considered a burden. Even as prosecutors claimed an important victory Friday, they and the defense lawyers were assessing the implications of another development that could set back the government’s case.

In a motion filed with the judge, prosecutors conceded that jurors in the upcoming trial should not be allowed to hear prior testimony from Briseno in which he said that one of his fellow officers was “out of control” and that the beating was “all wrong.”

Those statements will not be admitted in the federal case because prosecutors have conceded that Briseno was improperly forced to draw conclusions about the state of mind of Powell, who administered the majority of the blows.

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During last year’s state trial, Briseno was the only officer at the scene of the arrest to break ranks with his colleagues and criticize the beating.

The officers were acquitted on all but one count in that case. The jury deadlocked on the remaining count, a charge that Powell used unnecessary force in arresting King. Because he is being tried in federal court, Powell will not be retried on the remaining state charge.

Despite conceding that some of Briseno’s testimony from that trial is inadmissible in federal court, prosecutors still believe that other portions of his earlier testimony, which was recorded on videotape, are admissible and should be played in the upcoming case. The portions likely to be admitted include statements by Briseno describing the beating and King’s actions.

For instance, Briseno testified during the state trial that King was not resisting officers at some points during the beating. That statement and others, which have him only describing the beating--as opposed to drawing conclusions about it--probably will be admitted. And they could prove as damaging as Briseno’s assessments of Powell, said some observers familiar with the case.

“Even without his assessments, (Briseno’s) factual observations may well lead jurors to the same conclusions,” Arenella said.

“The government agrees with the defense that these conclusory statements should be (omitted) from the videotape (of Briseno’s testimony) before it is played to the jury,” prosecutors said in their motion, filed in response to a request by the defense lawyers that the testimony be excluded.

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Prosecutors also said Briseno’s earlier testimony about a Police Department “code of silence,” which demands that officers cover for each other’s actions, is not admissible as part of the upcoming trial.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer would not comment.

But Michael P. Stone, who represents Powell, said Briseno’s testimony was damaging during the state case, and he welcomed the news that much of it would be excluded this time.

“There was a perception in the state case that I had to fight a war on two fronts,” Stone said. “It looks like that may not be the case this time.”

Braun, Briseno’s lawyer, agreed. Although he conceded that some of Briseno’s earlier statements probably will be played for jurors in the coming trial, he said that the most damaging ones had been excised.

Judge Davies has scheduled a status conference on the case for Monday, and he may consider several portions of Briseno’s testimony that still are contested. He is also expected to rule on a number of other matters before the trial can begin.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin in early February.

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