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
"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