In a major setback to Rodney G. King's lawsuit seeking punitive damages, a federal judge Monday dismissed former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates as a defendant, saying King's lawyers had failed to show that Gates was directly accountable for the beating.
"Bad management is not enough," U.S. District Judge John G. Davies said. "Allowing racism is not enough. Poor supervision is not enough."
The decision stunned King's attorneys, who attempted to paint Gates as the man who tolerated and at times rewarded officers who used excessive force--particularly against minorities. With the police chief removed from financial liability, King lost his most visible and evidently wealthiest defendant in this phase of the trial. Earlier, King was awarded $3.8 million from the city.
The latest chapter in the legal legacy of the King case did little to resolve the question of who ultimately should be held accountable for one of the nation's most infamous police beatings. Officers have said they were merely following department procedures during the incident. The dismissal of Gates from the suit removed the only high-ranking city official who had been legally called to answer for those policies.
"I feel vindicated," Gates told reporters at a news conference at the radio station where he formerly hosted a talk show after resigning from office in 1992. "This is a nonsense case. This is a case of vengeance on the part of (King's attorneys)."
But John Burris, one of King's lawyers, criticized Davies' decision. "The judge made a mistake," he told reporters, adding that King may now have grounds for an appeal. Burris conceded that Davies' ruling was a blow to King's case--not just to the prospect of winning significant punitive damages but on the larger issue of who the public can hold responsible in such cases.
"One of our objectives was to send a message that chiefs can be held accountable for the conduct of their officers," Burris said. "Without Gates, that objective will not be attained."
King's attorneys noted that Monday's decision to remove Gates from the case was consistent with one of Davies' earlier, controversial rulings in the criminal case arising out of the King beating. The judge, in reducing the sentences for convicted former LAPD officers Laurence M. Powell and Stacey C. Koon last year, found that King bore some of the responsibility for the beating.
In terms of establishing Gates' linkage to the beating, Burris said: "We went out hunting for elephants and ended up with squirrels."
Davies on Monday also dropped from the lawsuit four officers who were bystanders at the March 3, 1991, beating, ruling that their roles were too minor to make them liable for punitive damages. In addition to Gates, Davies dismissed Robert Simpach, Ingrid Larsen-Braun, Joseph Napolitano and David Love, the only black Los Angeles police officer at the scene. A series of such decisions has whittled down the 15 original defendants to six in the second phase of King's civil trial to determine whether individual defendants should pay punitive damages.
Outside the courtroom, the decision prompted a celebration among those officers who had been extricated from the case.
Larsen-Braun rushed to a phone to call her family and give them the good news.
"I'm just really happy to be out of it," she said later. "This is a good day. I'm very happy and I wish luck to the officers still involved."
Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, who represents Gates and the officers, said Davies' decision was correct. "I think it will show the jury . . . they haven't got that strong a case against those remaining."
Davies refused to drop Powell and Koon, the two former officers who were key figures in the beating. Both are serving 30-month prison terms for violating King's civil rights. The judge also kept as defendants fired Officer Timothy E. Wind, suspended Officer Theodore J. Briseno, Officer Rolando Solano, who was involved in the handcuffing of King that night, and Officer Louis Turriaga, who put his foot on King.
In making his decision to drop the former police chief, Davies said King's attorneys had failed to prove that Gates acted out of malice.
The judge also questioned the use of the Christopher Commission report to show that Gates was accountable. The commission, a panel appointed after King's beating, was headed by Warren Christopher, then a private attorney and now U.S. secretary of state.
"The plaintiffs have failed to prove that Mr. Gates acted maliciously or out of spite or was callously indifferent to the rights and safety of others," Davies said. "The Christopher Commission report is silent on the issues here."
The commission's report criticized the LAPD for racism, sexism and excessive use of force, and called on Gates to begin a transition to new leadership. But Davies found that those criticisms fell short of showing Gates was personally culpable in King's beating.
Gates' 43-year law enforcement career ended with his 1992 resignation after criticism over the King case and the riots that followed the acquittals of four officers on state charges stemming from the beating.
On the stand, Gates repeated his view that the beating was an "aberration" and insisted that he never tolerated the use of excessive force by officers.
"I realized clearly this was an incident that could be misinterpreted by the public, that this would be a great media event, and the department would be in crisis and these officers would be part of that crisis," Gates said.
Despite aggressive questioning by King's attorney, Gates put on a strong defense of his 14-year tenure in the department.
"Gates was very polished and prepared," said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levinson, who observed the testimony. "There weren't many points scored here."
Before resting their case Friday, attorneys for King called a former deputy police chief who placed the blame for the beating on Gates.
"In my opinion, Chief Gates' actions created an organizational environment that could make an incident like the Rodney King beating likely to happen," said Louis Reiter, who retired from the department in 1981 and is now a police consultant.
Times staff writer Susan Moffatt contributed to this story.