The two Los Angeles police officers convicted of violating Rodney G. King’s civil rights were abruptly released from prison Monday--shortly after they checked in--by a federal judge who, in a surprising reversal of his earlier decision, granted them two weeks of freedom while they appeal to the Supreme Court.
The decision came as Sgt. Stacey C. Koon was turning himself in at the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp at Dublin, Calif., 40 miles east of San Francisco. Officer Laurence M. Powell had surrendered to authorities at the same prison on Sunday afternoon, a day earlier than necessary.
The officers, who drove away from the prison together at 3:15 p.m. and headed toward Los Angeles, declined comment. But others close to the case appeared stunned at U.S. District Judge John G. Davies’ decision to change his earlier ruling.
Just last month when he sentenced the officers to 30-month prison terms, Davies ruled that Koon and Powell were not entitled to bail pending an appeal of their convictions. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision earlier this month and last Friday the 9th Circuit declined the defendants’ request for a rehearing before a larger panel of judges.
But Monday, Davies granted the officers’ eleventh-hour request for a temporary reprieve until Oct. 12.
Davies directed prison officials to release Koon and Powell from the prison, where junk bond king Michael Milken served most of his term for securities fraud.
Explaining his decision, Davies said he was influenced by an “eloquent and persuasive” opinion on the bail issue issued last Friday by federal appeals court Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
Perhaps the most liberal member of the 9th Circuit, Reinhardt issued a blistering dissent to the 9th Circuit’s decision not to grant a full hearing on the bail issue.
“Because the court refuses to take this case . . . we are forcing Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell to go to prison pending their appeal, even though nobody suggests that there is any risk that they will flee or that they will present any danger to the community,” Reinhardt wrote.
“Because the defendants raise substantial issues on appeal, there is no rational purpose to this action. If Koon and Powell lose, there will be plenty of time for them to serve their sentences after we dispose of the merits of their appeal. However, if they prevail we will have subjected them to unjustified incarceration without any reason.”
Reinhardt said that the federal Mandatory Detention Act, a statute mandating that individuals convicted of violent crimes not be free on bail pending appeal, contains a section providing for exceptions. The judge said, however, that the officers are entitled to a hearing of the full 9th Circuit because the statute does not define what circumstances warrant exceptions to the general rule.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Laurence Middleton contended Davies was right to initially deny bail. As the trial judge, Middleton said, Davies himself “was in the best position to find (whether) exceptional circumstances existed” that would warrant releasing the men.
Davies’ ruling Monday was his second surprise decision since the officers’ conviction. Last month, he was sharply criticized after he sentenced Koon and Powell to terms considerably shorter than he could have.
Davies departed from federal sentencing guidelines, which called for a term in the seven- to nine-year range, and meted out a 30-month terms. Davies--who also is presiding over King’s civil suit against the officers and the city of Los Angeles--said during sentencing that King was partly to blame for what happened to him. The Justice Department has appealed the sentence.
Middleton, appearing stunned at Monday’s action, declined comment, as did his superiors at the U.S. attorney’s office.
In contrast, Santa Ana attorney William J. Kopeny, who is handling Powell’s appeal, said he was “very happy. Now we’ll have our chance with the Supreme Court.” Just moments earlier, he had told reporters he doubted that he would have much chance because Powell already had turned himself in.
Kopeny said he would send his brief on the bail issue by overnight courier to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who handles such emergency appeals for nine Western states, including California. He said he was hopeful that O’Connor would allow Koon and Powell to stay free while the 9th Circuit reviews their appeal.
“There are some interesting issues in this case,” the attorney said.
“We’re pretty gratified that we’ll have the opportunity to present this important issue to the highest court in the land,” said Ira M. Salzman, one of Koon’s attorneys.
But Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose South-Central congressional district was severely damaged during the 1992 riots following not guilty verdicts in the officers’ state court trial, said Davies “sent the wrong signal” by delaying the sentences. “Judge Davies acted irresponsibly and is exacerbating an already tense situation.”
She was referring to the perception that the white officers have been treated much more favorably than the black men accused of beating truck driver Reginald O. Denny and others as the riots broke out. Koon and Powell were free on $5,000 unsecured bail, while Damian Monroe Williams and Henry Keith Watson, whose case is about to go to the jury, have been incarcerated on high bail since their arrests more than 16 months ago.
Supporters of Williams and Watson came to the Edward R. Roybal federal courthouse and expressed outrage at Davies’ ruling. Mollie Bell of the LA4+ Defense Committee said the decision to release the officers was yet another instance of how whites and blacks are treated differently in the American legal system.
“How long is injustice going to last in America?” Bell asked. “What’s the use of going to the criminal justice system if this is going to happen?”
Several law professors who have closely followed the officers’ case said Davies’ action was highly unusual, but they also said it was far from clear whether it would have long-term significance.
“I think it’s just a temporary delay,” said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson. “It would be extraordinary for O’Connor to intervene.”
UCLA law professor Peter Arenella also said he thought it unlikely that Justice O’Connor would come to the aid of Koon and Powell. “The Supreme Court rarely intervenes in matters concerning denial of bail pending appeal for convicted felons.”
While not disagreeing, Southwestern University law professor Myrna Raeder said it was possible O’Connor might take action because “this case is so atypical.”
In essence, the government has contended that Powell and Koon were convicted of a crime of violence--the March 3, 1991 beating of King--and do not deserve unusual treatment. Their attorneys contend, however, that although they were convicted of a violent crime, they do not have a history of violence and do not represent a threat to the community.
Unless they win their appeal on the bail issue, Powell and Koon are expected to be returned to Dublin--a federal prison camp with no fences, walls, bars or gun towers.
Inmates are housed in converted barracks. All of them work about eight hours a day, five days a week, as either cooks and orderlies at the camp or as electricians, painters, mechanics or landscapers at the adjoining Camp Parks army base. Educational opportunities are limited and the only recreational facilities available are an outdoor weightlifting area and walking trails, Killian said.
Although police officers generally are considered highly vulnerable in prison, federal officials said Koon and Powell will not be segregated at Dublin, and are expected to be safe there because its inmates do not have violent histories. The majority--about 66%--have committed nonviolent drug offenses. The rest are white-collar criminals and a small percentage have been convicted of robbery.
During his one night in custody at the 244-inmate facility, Powell was housed in the general prison population and slept on a mattress on the floor because of overcrowding.
Times staff writers Richard Paddock in Dublin and Miles Corwin in Los Angeles contributed to this story.