L.A. Verdicts Could Stymie Possible Civil Rights Cases

Article excerpt

AMERICANS may have been reassured by Bush administration statements that the police acquittals were not the end of the legal process in the Rodney King police-brutality case.

But it will be difficult for the Justice Department to gain a conviction on charges of federal civil rights violations, if it decides to pursue them, say legal experts. The Justice Department has moved its own investigation of the March 1991 incident into high gear and has promised a quick decision on whether to prosecute the case.

"The fact of last week's acquittals already shows that it's difficult to get a conviction in this case," says Joseph diGenova, a former United States attorney.

Although public-opinion polls show that a large majority of the American public disagrees with the jury's conclusion - given the seemingly irrefutable evidence of the videotape that captured the beating - the defense in a federal- court trial could sway a new jury as it did in the state trial. The police officers' defense was that such force was necessary to subdue a large, powerful man whom they believed to be high on drugs and possibly armed.

To decide to convict, the jurors had to be sure "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the officer in question was guilty of a criminal offense. Such a high standard is difficult to achieve in cases against police officers, whom the public is inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. The "reasonable doubt" standard would also hold in a federal trial. Flaws in state case

There can be some advantages to trying a case again with comparable evidence, says Prof. Sheldon Krantz of American University law school. Federal prosecutors can learn from the state's mistakes. They can gain insights on jury selection (which in the state case had no blacks) and in the selection of trial venue (a largely white, well-off community).

"But," says Professor Krantz, "it is difficult to make a constitutional civil rights case, where there are issues of proving intent. The offense needs to be egregious, though this may be that kind of case."

One of the pitfalls of retrying a case is that any inconsistencies in repeat testimony from witnesses could hurt the prosecution's case.

One mistake the state prosecutors made was not to put Mr. King, the black motorist whom police beat, on the witness stand, says Mr. diGenova. He acknowledges that King would not be the perfect witness: His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit at the time and his recollections would be questionable; he has a criminal record; and he has an $83 million claim pending against the city of Los Angeles, a point diGenova calls problematic but "not debilitating. …