WASHINGTON — U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr said Thursday that the Justice Department is resuming its review of the Rodney G. King incident to determine whether there has been a criminal violation of federal civil rights laws.
"It's important for people to remember," Barr said, "that the verdicts (Wednesday) on state charges are not the end of the process. The Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing the civil rights laws of the United States and it will do so vigorously."
Barr said the department and the FBI have closely monitored the King case since a videotape of the beating brought the incident to worldwide attention 14 months ago. Federal agencies deferred action while the state completed its criminal proceedings, he said.
Now, Barr said, the department is moving forward to complete its investigation. Another federal law enforcement source said that a major portion of the federal probe is completed.
Wayne Budd, the Justice Department's third-ranking official and its highest-ranking black, and two other department lawyers were sent to Los Angeles on Thursday, Barr said.
Federal sources said that the Washington lawyers met with U.S. Atty. Lourdes G. Baird and Charlie Parsons, the FBI agent in charge in Los Angeles, to plan strategy soon after they arrived. No details about the meeting were available.
Barr said he had instructed federal officials to complete their review of the case "as soon as possible."
A former federal prosecutor familiar with such cases said it is conceivable that there could be an indictment within a month, perhaps sooner.
Asked if the investigation was limited to the four acquitted officers, a high federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We are looking at the entire incident of the beating of Rodney King."
Last June, the Times reported that Justice Department attorneys were doubtful that any of the 17 Los Angeles Police Department officers who stood by and watched as King was beaten could be prosecuted on federal charges, but federal prosecutors in Los Angeles said charges against the bystanders had not been ruled out.
Barr stressed that a separate federal prosecution could be filed against the acquitted officers without violating the Constitution's normal double-jeopardy prohibition. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional to have dual state and federal prosecutions stemming from the same incident.
Though the Justice Department has strict criteria for bringing such cases, it has done so on numerous occasions, primarily in the South where local officials were often reluctant to bring charges against officers or where it was difficult to obtain convictions from all-white juries.
For example, after a state court jury in Alabama acquitted three Ku Klux Klansmen of murdering civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in 1965, the Klansmen were successfully prosecuted under an 1870 statute for conspiring to violate Liuzzo's civil rights. Former Atty. Gen. Nicholas Katzenbach said Thursday: "It sounds silly to talk about depriving someone of their civil rights when they've been killed, but that's all we had." The three men were sentenced to the maximum term at the time--10 years.
Since then, there have been several successful federal prosecutions under that law and a companion statute also enacted during the Reconstruction era. The second statute is specifically aimed at police officers committing unlawful acts "under color of state authority." The laws were designed, in part, to curb activity of the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War.
For example, in 1982, the U.S. attorney and the FBI in Los Angeles successfully prosecuted California Highway Patrolman George M. Gwaltney for a civil rights violation stemming from the murder of a woman in the Barstow area after two unsuccessful state murder prosecutions in San Bernardino County courts. He received a 90-year prison term.
The standard on whether to bring a second federal prosecution, after local authorities have acted, said Barr, is "whether or not we believe the federal interest has been vindicated by the state proceeding."
There are several factors in making that determination, said Yale University Law Professor Drew Days, who headed the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division during President Carter's Administration: Whether there has been a bona fide prosecution by local officials, whether the outcome of a case is clearly at odds with the evidence, and the nature of the offense.
Duke University law professor William Van Alstyne, an expert on civil rights law, said it is clear that there was a bona fide prosecution in the King case. But he said the other two criteria, particularly the nature of the alleged crime, could be invoked by Justice Department officials making the decision on whether to file federal charges.