US Prosecutors to Try Los Angeles Policemen on Civil Rights Charges Feds Will Have to Work to Prove Guilt, but Experts Applaud Retrial

Article excerpt

UNITED States prosecutors may be taking a big gamble by indicting four Los Angeles police officers of civil rights violations in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

The officers, who are to be arraigned today in US District Court in Los Angeles, were acquitted on April 29 by a local jury of using excessive force against Mr. King.

Unless the US Attorney's office can make a substantially better case than the Los Angeles County district attorney did, this trial may also end in acquittal - which could trigger the same sort of rioting and looting that followed the first verdict.

Nevertheless, most legal experts applauded the Justice Department's decision to seek a grand jury indictment, which was unsealed last week.

"It was absolutely essential that federal civil rights charges be brought because a grave injustice was done at the first trial," says Peter Arenella, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Law School. "It is necessary to reassure the minority community and the public at large that justice can be done." Right to reasonable arrest

The federal indictment charges that Officers Theodore Briseno, Lawrence Powell, and Timothy Wind "willfully" violated Mr. King's Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable arrest. It further charges that Sgt. Stacey Koon violated the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment by failing to restrain the other officers when they beat and kicked King on March 3, 1991.

To win their case, federal prosecutors will have to prove not only that the officers used excessive force in arresting King, but that they did so with the express intent of violating his civil rights.

"It's a highly technical distinction, but there is a higher burden of proof" in this sort of case, says Drew Days, former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division. "Given the same incident, all other things being equal, the chances of success in a federal prosecution are less than in a state prosecution because of the `intent' standard."

In light of the higher burden of proof, and juries' traditional reluctance to convict police officers, why did federal prosecutors choose to retry the policemen?

Clearly, there was strong political pressure to indict the officers. The original acquittal resulted in the worst riots in modern American history, and polls show a large majority of the nation believed the jury in Simi Valley, Calif., was mistaken.

But former federal prosecutors reject the notion that Lourdes Baird, the US attorney in Los Angeles, sought the indictment for purely political reasons.

"I would be very surprised if the decision was made on anything other than professional grounds," says William Gardner, former criminal section chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division. …


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