In a ruling that sends the Rodney G. King police beating case back to Los Angeles for at least one more hearing, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found Thursday that King’s “misconduct” and the burden of a double trial justified the lenient, 30-month sentences imposed on two officers found guilty of violating his civil rights.
By a 9-0 vote, the justices concluded that higher courts should generally defer to a federal sentencing judge--a ruling that gives jurists broader discretion in handing out prison terms and represents the Supreme Court’s first foray into the controversial area of applying federal sentencing guidelines.
And in the King case, the high court agreed with U.S. District Judge John G. Davies that King’s behavior justified a reduction in the officers’ sentences.
The ruling upholds most of the grounds for the 30-month sentences imposed on former LAPD Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and former Officer Laurence M. Powell, who were convicted in 1993 after one of the most closely watched criminal trials of modern times. News of the guilty verdicts on that cool April morning drew applause and tears of joy in Los Angeles--one year after rioters tore through the city over the not-guilty verdicts for those same officers in Superior Court.
Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno, the two other officers charged in both cases, were acquitted both times. They were fired from the Los Angeles Police Department and have quietly moved on to other careers.
Had the Supreme Court sided Thursday with prosecutors in their appeal of the sentences imposed on Koon and Powell, the two former officers, who were freed late last year, would probably have been sent back to prison. Instead, they will almost certainly remain free, though Davies will have to reconsider their sentences one more time in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
As for King, he won a $3.8-million judgment from the city and then weathered a series of run-ins with police. On Thursday, his lawyer said King only wants to put the long saga behind him.
“Mr. King’s position is that we should close the books and move on,” said Edi M.O. Faal, an Orange County lawyer who represents King. “They already have served their time in prison, and Mr. King does not believe they need to serve more.”
The officers were swamped with well-wishers, and their lawyers and supporters hailed the rulings. Ira Salzman, who represented Koon at the federal trial, called the court decision “a great victory for every judge that sentences people” and said Koon had greeted it with joy and relief. Conservative activist Richard A. Delgaudio, who held a homecoming dinner for Powell upon his release from custody, described the ruling as “a rebuke to the Justice Department of Janet Reno.”
Others were less buoyant.
The Rev. Cecil Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, declined to comment on the effect of the ruling but reiterated his belief that the 30-month sentences were too short. “Normally justice should be tempered by mercy,” Murray said. "[Davies] seemed to reverse that to mercy tempered by justice.”
Speaking for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that the videotaped beating of King had made it a case of worldwide renown. The court was not reviewing the guilt of the two officers, he stressed.
Instead, the justices took up the case to consider a raging controversy in the federal judiciary over the authority of trial judges to set criminal sentences.
Until 1984, federal judges had wide leeway in handing down sentences. But in Congress, liberals were complaining about sentences that were too harsh, particularly against the poor and minorities, while conservatives were citing examples of soft treatment.
An unusual coalition in Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 to try to standardize criminal sentences. Regardless of where a federal criminal was convicted or which judge he appeared before, the defendant should get roughly the same sentence for the same offense, according to the theory behind the law.
A sentencing manual lays out points for criminal offenses, along with points for mitigating and aggravating circumstances. A judge is supposed to tally up the points and hand out the sentence prescribed in the manual.
Not surprisingly, judges around the country have chafed at the system. In the last decade, several have resigned from the bench, complaining that they are no longer willing to be bound by the strict sentencing rules. Thursday’s decision marks the first time that the Supreme Court has squarely considered the issue, and it came down on the side of restoring more leeway to trial judges.
It is true the sentencing guidelines sought to “reduce unjustified disparities” in sentences, Kennedy said, and move toward “the evenhandedness and neutrality that are the distinguishing marks of any principled system of justice.”
However, it is the “federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and punishment,” Kennedy wrote.
That strongly backed Davies’ discretion in the King case, but the implications for defendants in other cases are harder to discern. Any criminal defendant who receives a sentence less than that called for by the federal sentencing guidelines could benefit because the ruling makes it harder for appellate judges to overturn those sentences. But the specific grounds that the Supreme Court validated in the King case occur rarely, so the ruling’s impact may be limited.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor who followed the King case from the outset, said she believed that many people would wonder why the Supreme Court chose this incident to take a stand on the guidelines.
“I think a lot of people will shake their heads and say ‘Why this case?’ to start defining how to apply the sentencing guidelines--a case that has so much emotional impact on the community and where the defendants are white police officers as opposed to minority drug dealers who come through the system every day,” she said. “I’m not sure the public will appreciate the legal niceties in how the court ruled this way. I fear the public will just see this as the court letting these guys off easier.”
Throughout the appeal of their clients’ sentences, lawyers for Koon and Powell argued that the circumstances of what occurred on the night of the King beating and its aftermath made that case so unusual that the guidelines could not take all the facts into account.
King and two friends had been drinking in Altadena on the evening of March 2, 1991, when they set off on the Foothill Freeway with King at the wheel. California Highway Patrol officers concluded that the car was speeding and tried to pull the occupants over, but King fled, and after getting off the freeway the chase was turned over to Los Angeles Police Department.
King was ordered to the ground and complied, but then, according to testimony at both trials, threw off officers who tried to handcuff him and ran in the direction of Powell. Powell and Wind began beating King with their batons and kicking him. Under the orders of Koon, they continued to pummel King after he was lying on the ground.
Briseno appeared on the videotape of the beating at only two points, once in an apparent attempt to block a blow by Powell and later to deliver a sharp stomp to the back of King’s neck or upper back.
With the exception of one unresolved count against Powell, all four officers were found not guilty after a trial in Ventura County. The verdicts touched off the worst urban riots this century in the United States.
That ended the state case, but federal law makes it a crime to violate a person’s constitutional rights. The officers were tried again in federal court, and this time, Koon and Powell were convicted.
When it came time to sentence the pair, Judge Davies performed the calculations under the sentencing guidelines and concluded that they called for sentences of 70 to 84 months.
But the judge announced several reasons for departing from the guidelines. Unlike factors in a typical civil rights case, King’s conduct helped provoke the attack, Davies said. He also noted that the officers’ careers were ruined, they were likely to suffer abuse in prison and a “specter of unfairness” hung over the case because of the second trial, even though Davies acknowledged that the second trial was legal.
Prosecutors appealed and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Davies lacked the authority to ignore the guidelines and impose the lighter sentence. That court directed him to resentence them to longer terms.
Ironically, the leading dissenter from that appellate ruling was Judge Stephen Reinhart, one of the nation’s leading liberal judges who this time found himself siding with two police officers convicted of civil rights violations.
The Supreme Court overruled the 9th Circuit majority and ruled that a judge’s “decision to depart from the guidelines will in most cases be due substantial deference,” Kennedy said. Then the court went through each factor considered by Davies.
First and most controversially, King’s “provocative behavior” could be considered as a mitigating factor for the officers, Kennedy said, citing the former felon’s “driving while intoxicated, fleeing from police, refusing to obey the officers’ commands [and] attempting to escape from police custody.”
Prosecutors had fought long and hard against that reasoning. They agreed that King had provoked the officers’ initial actions, but argued that the beating did not become illegal until King stopped resisting. It was illogical, the government lawyers maintained, to say that King’s resistance provoked the illegal portion of the beating when Davies himself ruled that the beating became illegal when King stopped resisting.
The high court disagreed, and found that the “widespread publicity and emotional outrage” surrounding the beating and the subsequent riots “made the case unusual.” Davies was justified in citing this factor in lowering their sentences, the court said.
Third, the justices said that while “successive prosecutions” are permitted in state and federal court, the judge could also consider how this “significantly burdened the defendants.”
In a concurring opinion in the case (Koon vs. United States, 94-1664 and Powell vs. United States, 94-8842), Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer backed the majority’s conclusion, but said they believed Judge Davies erred by considering the successive prosecutions and possible abuse in prison.
Moreover, all the justices said that Davies erred on two points. The fact that the officers’ careers were ruined and that they are unlikely to commit other crimes should not have been considered as mitigating, the justices said.
Since the high court upheld most, but not all, of Davies’ reasons, it remanded the case back to the judge to reconsider the sentences. That hearing could take place later this summer. Davies could use that opportunity to increase the sentences and send the officers back to prison, but few observers expect that to happen.
At the LAPD, meanwhile, the King case has shadowed a proud police force for more than five years. The prospect of yet another hearing drew sighs and groans at police headquarters, but officials declined to comment in detail.
Said Cmdr. Tim McBride, the department’s official spokesman: “We’d really like to see this matter ended.”
Savage contributed from Washington, Newton from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Henry Weinstein, Marc Lacey and Peter Hong also contributed to this article.