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U.S. Seeks Tougher Penalties for Rodney King Beaters

By Henry Weinstein
Los Angeles Times


The Justice Department announced Friday that it will appeal the 2-year prison sentences imposed on two Los Angeles police officers convicted of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights during a videotaped beating in 1991.

U.S. District Judge John G. Davies levied the terms against Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and officer Laurence M. Powell on Aug. 4, sparking criticism that he had been too lenient.

Davies could have sentenced each officer to a maximum term of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The judge said federal sentencing guidelines call for terms of from six to seven years, but he issued a 54-page written memorandum explaining why he decided to reduce the sentences well below what is recommended.

U.S. Attorney Terree A. Bowers had expressed disappointment with Davies' decision immediately after the sentencing so the Justice Department's decision was not surprising. Nevertheless, before the decision was made, federal attorneys conducted a formal review of the sentencing that involved Solicitor General Drew Days in Washington.

``The government's decision is not unexpected given that the court made such a dramatic departure from the guidelines and given that this sentencing raises some very important issues, not just for this case but for police misconduct cases in general," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor.

Lawyers for the two defendants already have filed appeals of the convictions. Oral arguments on all the appeals are not expected until next year.

Attorneys for both Koon and Powell predicted that the government's appeal would not succeed. ``The judge's opinion was well supported by both the facts and the law," said attorney Joel Levine, who already has filed an appeal challenging Koon's conviction.

Said attorney William J. Kopeny, who is representing Powell on appeal: ``The government seems to be repeating its performance in deciding to file the case in the first place, after there was a fair trial in state court."

Kopeny was referring to the 1992 Simi Valley trial outside Los Angeles in which Koon and two other Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of all charges stemming from the March 1991 beating of King, and Powell was acquitted on all but one count.

But the Justice Department's action was lauded by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who along with two dozen other members of the Congressional Black Caucus publicly urged Attorney General Janet Reno to appeal the sentences to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

``Thank goodness the Justice Department has seen fit to appeal these sentences," Waters said. ``As was the case after the first Rodney King trial, the Justice Department has intervened to ensure that justice is served. Police officers should be held strictly accountable for the excessive use of force. Only when that happens can we put this case behind us."

Milton Grimes, King's attorney, also praised the Justice Department's decision. ``I'm supportive of that. I believe that the sentences of the two officers are not reflective of their deeds."

When he announced the sentences, Davies criticized the government for lodging the federal charges in the first place. He praised Koon and Powell as officers with good records and said they acted legally during the first 55 seconds of the beating after a San Fernando Valley car chase, becoming lawbreakers only during the final 19 seconds. Some legal experts said that Davies' reasoning, in effect, nullified the jury's verdict.

Among the reasons the judge gave for departing from the guidelines: King provoked the incident, the officers had suffered substantial punishment already, including the earlier state prosecution; a civil suit has been filed against them, and police officers are more vulnerable to assault in prison.

Government lawyers and legal observers have said that none of these factors justify departing from the sentencing guidelines.

The Justice Department needs to challenge Davies' decision since a number of these issues could come up in future cases involving other officers sentenced for violating civil rights, Levenson said.

It is unclear how long it will take for the Justice Department's appeal to be processed by the 9th Circuit Court. First, a transcript has to be prepared. Earlier this month, the chief court reporter in the case said it would take about six months to finish work on the transcript. After it is finished, the Appeals Court will set a briefing schedule. After briefs are submitted, oral arguments will be held before a three-judge panel in Pasadena, Calif.

Miriam Krinsky, chief of the appellate division of the U.S. Attorney's office, said that since complicated federal sentencing guidelines were enacted in 1987, ``it has not been unusual for our office, when we believe the legal error is of sufficient magnitude, to appeal the sentencing decision." She said the office currently is appealing about two dozen sentences felt to be too lenient.