Officers Return to Court for Final Act of King Drama
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In the final act of a two-year drama, two police officers convicted of violating Rodney King’s civil rights return to court this week seeking leniency from a judge who could send them to prison for 10 years.
″He’s scared,″ said Michael P. Stone, the lawyer for Officer Laurence Powell. ″He’s dreading Aug. 4. He’s scared out of his pants.″
While Stone is resigned to Powell’s serving some prison time, the lawyer for Sgt. Stacey Koon said the man who was in command when King was beaten March 3, 1991, believes he should receive probation.
″Realistically, it’s an uphill struggle,″ said attorney Ira Salzman. ″It will be Herculean. ... But Stacey Koon was not involved in any assaultive conduct. ... I am not conceding that prison is appropriate and I’m asking for probation.″
More than three months ago, a jury split its verdict in the federal trial, finding Koon and Powell guilty while acquitting Officer Theodore Briseno and former Officer Timothy Wind on civil rights charges.
The same four officers had been tried in state court for assault, and their 1992 acquittals in Simi Valley set off fiery riots in Los Angeles, killing 54 people and consuming millions of dollars worth of property.
After the smoke cleared, the same officers were indicted on federal charges. The second trial, another potential tinder box, ended peacefully.
Federal authorities said that high security will be in place Wednesday but refused to give details.
″All I can say is there will be security inside, outside and around the building,″ said Hugo Pastore of the Federal Protective Service office.
″Everything that needs to be done will be done,″ said Los Angeles Police Lt. John Dunkin.
Dunkin said the LAPD has a single plan to deal with the officers’ sentencing as well as with the trial of two men in the riot beating of truck driver Reginald Denny.
″Everybody wants to separate the King case and the Denny case,″ said Chilton Alphonse, head of an anti-gang program in South Central Los Angeles. ″But you can’t separate them because if there had been no King case there would be no Denny case.″
Alphonse said he doesn’t expect trouble unless the sentences are unusually light.
″I just hope the sentences are just in both trials,″ he said. ″If they’re not, I think there will be some bad feelings.″
Just what sentence U.S. District Judge John G. Davies will hand down is the hot topic in federal courthouse corridors. Although he must abide by strict federal sentencing guidelines, Davies could depart from recommended terms.
Stone is asking for a low term of 10 to 18 months for Powell. The government seeks harsh sentences - seven to nine years for Powell and nine to 10 years for Koon. The legal maximum is 10 years. With good behavior, the officers would serve 85 percent of the time.
Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, who observed the officers’ federal trial and has studied the sentencing guidelines, predicts sentences of three to seven years.
King was chased for speeding on a freeway March 3, 1991. When the cars stopped, police let loose a fusillade of baton blows that left King beaten and bloody. An amateur cameraman recorded the scene on his new video camera, creating a visual record that prompted a national outcry against police brutality.
Levenson said she would not be surprised if the defense tries to litigate many trial issues at the sentencing hearing, which could last all day.
″I think they’re going to open the big issue - to put Rodney King on trial. I think they will say that he was in a position to control the situation and if he had gone into a felony prone position this wouldn’t have happened.″
The government, she said, will counter that the judge should not try to re- decide what a jury has already decided.
Attorney Harland Braun, who represented the acquitted Officer Briseno, said, ″King brought it on himself, so to speak. If it wasn’t this case and the riots, you would see these defendants getting no jail time.″
″But the judge is sentencing symbols, not defendants,″ Braun said. ″There aren’t many judges that would have the courage to give no jail time.″
Another key issue is whether Powell and Koon should be sent to prison immediately or remain free while their appeals are heard.
″He is not a flight risk or a danger to society and there are important issues on appeal,″ said Koon’s lawyer, Salzman.
Salzman sees the sentences having a chilling effect on police everywhere.
″If these officers are incarcerated,″ he said, ″it will make all officers hesitant to act because of the fear of incarceration. That will harm law enforcement and what harms law enforcement harms all of us.″