Sentencing Guidelines on Trial in High Court RODNEY KING CASE

Article excerpt

FIVE years ago, black motorist Rodney King was beaten by four white police officers while the nation watched via videotape. Two years ago two policemen were convicted for using unreasonable force in arresting Mr. King.

Today, the US Supreme Court revisits this high-profile, volatile case, examining if justice is better served by allowing judges leeway or requiring them to sentence according to rigid guidelines.

The high court's ruling could set precedents for a host of other federal court cases in which trial judges use their own discretion in interpreting the increasingly popular mandatory minimum sentences and other court guidelines.

On trial is federal District Court Judge John Davies's sentencing. He sent Los Angeles police officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell to prison for 30 months each - less than half of the 70 to 87 months called for under sentencing guidelines.

The sentencing debate was sparked by a set of federal guidelines issued in 1987, after a special commission determined that punishments without guidelines were confusing to the public and too often unfair to criminals.

If the Supreme Court rules the sentences were too light, Mr. Koon and Mr. Powell could be sent back to prison to serve up to 40 more months. If the high court upholds Judge Davies's decision, it will come as a blow to sentencing guidelines.

"These federal guidelines have been controversial ever since they were implemented 10 years ago," says Robert Pugsley, professor of law at Southwestern School of Law, in Los Angeles. He notes the legal parameters have been under attack in a wide range of cases such as how to sentence "crack" cocaine pushers vs. the sentencing of those selling less potent cocaine powder. "Lawyers and judges across the country will welcome any light the justices can shed in clarifying the guidelines."

In handing down the lighter sentences, Judge Davies cited the loss of the officers' jobs and said the federal civil rights trial coming after acquittals for state criminal charges created a "specter of unfairness. …