Barry Kowalski, who won convictions in Rodney King civil rights case, dies at 74

Rodney King speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles pleading for the end to the rioting that plagued the city in 1992 after four police officers were found not guilty beating case. Attorney Barry Kowalski later won convictions against two of the officers.
(David Longstreath / Associated Press)

Attorney Barry F. Kowalski was often considered the best of the best of the Department of Justice’s many prosecutors, who for decades chased hate and advocated for civil rights across the country.

Kowalski, along with former Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer, was the handpicked prosecutor in one of the defining civil rights cases of the 1990s: the trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged in the 1991 beating of Rodney King, an incident that ultimately inflamed the city.

Kowalski was the Justice Department’s assistant chief in the criminal section in its civil rights division when a grainy video emerged of four white police officers beating King with batons and kicking him while he was on the ground after being stopped for speeding.

But an all-white jury in Simi Valley found the officers not guilty of excessive force and hours after the verdicts, rioting broke out in the streets of Los Angeles. More than 50 people died, and there was an estimated $1.5 billion in damages. As the Watt riots had done, the street violence exposed the racial fissures that crisscrossed L.A.


After the not guilty verdicts, Kowalski moved to L.A. from Virginia as a prosecutor in the federal civil rights trial that followed. His work and that of other Justice Department lawyers resulted in the indictment of four police officers charged with violating King’s civil rights.

King struggled with substance abuse in the years that followed and was in and out of jail. He was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool June 2012. He was 47.

A video shot by George Holliday in 1991 shows L.A. police officers the beating Rodney King.
(George Holliday / Associated Press)

Along with Clymer, Kowalski convinced the jury that the officers — whom he called “bullies with badges” — had lied about what had happened that night. Two officers were convicted and sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison. He went on to prosecute police brutality cases in Texas, Tennessee and Puerto Rico.

Kowalski, once called “Justice’s Pit Bull,” died June 30 at his home in Arlington, Va., from complications of two strokes, his wife, Katie Zimmerman Kowalski, told the New York Times. He was 74.

Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School and a former prosecutor, said that through Kowalski’s efforts, “civil rights really became a reality. He protected people who had been victimized and who had no one else to protect them, or at least advocate in their name. He was not afraid of the big case. He took justice personal.”

Kowalski was born Aug. 26, 1944, in Hartford, Conn. His father, Frank, was a former congressman and his mother, Helen, an artist and homemaker.

He grew up in Washington, where his family settled after his father was elected to Congress in 1958. He worked briefly for Vice President Hubert Humphrey between his junior and senior years at Brown University, where he earned a degree in political science in 1966. In 1973, he received his juris doctor from Catholic University Law School.


Kowalski, a former Marine who served a year in Vietnam, once said that if he hadn’t joined the Marine Corps, he would’ve been a hippie.

“I am a very unconventional lawyer. I am a lawyer who prosecutes criminal civil rights cases. I don’t prosecute drug dealers and bank robbers, violent crime and corporate crime. I prosecute those who violate the United States Constitution and commit crimes in the course of it. So that’s a rather hippie-like kind of lawyer I guess, right?...although I do it in a gray suit,” he said.

In one of his first cases, Kowalski investigated the abduction and death of Michael Donald, a 19-year-old black man who was kidnapped in Mobile, Ala. Donald was found hanging from a tree, his body beaten. His throat slashed.

Kowalski’s expertise and hard work resulted in the convictions of two Ku Klux Klan members: James Knowles, who was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty, and Henry Hays, who was convicted of murder and executed in the electrical chair in 1997.


A man with a shopping cart races past a burning shop during the L.A. riots following the Rodney King trial.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Donald’s mother later filed a civil suit against the United Klans of America in 1987, and the organization was found liable in the death of her son and ordered to pay $7 million, causing the UKA to go bankrupt.

In 1988, he won convictions against two neo-Nazis in the 1984 murder of the Jewish radio host Alan Berg in Denver.

The following year, Kowalski helped convict almost two dozen skinheads in Dallas for harassing Latinos and African Americans.


And in 2000, 32 years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he led the investigation that concluded there was no evidence proving that there was a conspiracy to kill King.

But his career successes were also met with failures. He was unable to convict white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin in the 1980 attempted murder of Vernon Jordan, a civil rights activist and president of the Urban League.

In a 1998 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kowalski described what compelled him to prosecute hate crimes:


“It’s God’s work. God made somebody a certain color, a certain way. God didn’t intend for that person to suffer because of that. When somebody gets hurt because of that, that is one of the most heinous crimes. It’s despicable. And when someone has power by virtue of the authority the state has granted him and someone gets hurt, that’s the second-worst thing.”

Levenson, who knew Kowalski for about 35 years, remembered that no one dared mess with him.

“He was intense. He was smart, hardworking, confident and determined … and he was really a public defendant,” Levenson said. “He believed in every ounce of what he did. He thought he could make society better by holding people accountable.”

Kowalski is survived by his wife, three daughters, a sister and two granddaughters.