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Prosecutors in King Trial Are Handpicked 'A-Team' : Law: The federal attorneys have disparate styles. But they are a tenacious pair, driven to win the volatile case.

January 25, 1993|JIM NEWTON and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When the lawyers in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial gather informally in the courthouse hallways, Justice Department attorney Barry F. Kowalski works the crowd, shaking hands, gently ribbing his rivals and trying to coax bits of information out of them.

His colleague, Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer, is more prone to brood silently. He often stands alone, exuding intensity and concentration.

Inside the courtroom, the contrast between the two is just as striking: Kowalski is light and conversational; Clymer hard-charging and unyielding. Although the two men are opposites in style, they are a fearsome combination, the best of the best in the Justice Department's huge stable of prosecutors. And it is no accident, insiders say, that they were handpicked to try what may be the most volatile civil rights case in decades--the federal trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused in King's beating.

"This is the A-Team," said one federal prosecutor. "If this case is lost, it was unwinnable."

When jury selection begins next month, the nation's attention will turn to these two men--the good-natured lion of the civil rights division in Washington and the 34-year-old rising star of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. In Kowalski, the government has a top-notch lawyer who has spent more than a decade prosecuting civil rights cases; in Clymer, it has a bulldog.

Kowalski was dispatched from Washington immediately after the officers were acquitted in April on all but one count during a state trial in Simi Valley, sparking rioting that engulfed Los Angeles. His mere presence on the case signaled to some observers that the federal government would spare no effort in its investigation. Clymer was chief of the major crimes section of the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office when he was asked to take this case. It meant giving up that job, but Clymer agreed.

"The energy level on this case is somewhat astronomical," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola law school professor and former federal prosecutor who knows Clymer and Kowalski. "These guys are both very, very good."

Clymer and Kowalski agreed to be interviewed for this article, but both declined to answer questions regarding the case.

*

Barry Kowalski has spent more than a decade traveling the United States in pursuit of hate. Where he has found it--and he has found plenty--he has prosecuted its practitioners with enormous success.

Klansmen in Alabama, members of the Order in Seattle, skinheads in Dallas, neo-Nazis who shot radio talk show host Alan Berg in Denver, a white racist accused of shooting civil rights leader Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Ind.--all have ended up across a courtroom from the affable former law professor.

He does not, at first sight, cut an imposing figure. Kowalski is a slight, trim man who laughs easily and makes jokes at his own expense. Despite his stature in the civil rights division, where he is the deputy chief of the criminal section, Kowalski refers to himself as that rare person who took a job with the government "for the money."

In fact, Kowalski was practically born into government service. A native of Connecticut, he moved to Washington with his father, a Democratic congressman who served two terms until 1962. "He taught me everything I know about politics," said Kowalski, who worked for a time as "an aide to an aide" of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

In 1967, he joined the Marine Corps and was sent to Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander. He was assigned to a pacification program, advising a Vietnamese major with 1,300 paramilitary personnel in winning "the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese, "the only really useful thing going on there then," Kowalski said.

After earning his law degree at Catholic University, he worked as a city prosecutor in the corporation counsel's office and then taught law for seven years at Antioch Law School in Washington.

He says he enjoyed teaching, but he was "going broke" doing it. So in 1981, a friend persuaded him to join the Justice Department. Kowalski, who faced college tuition bills for his daughter in four years, jumped at the offer.

Few cases are bigger than one of Kowalski's first. Soon after joining the Justice Department, he was assigned to write a memo "closing" the lynching of Michael Donald, a young black man killed in Mobile, Ala. Local prosecutors insisted that the crime was not racially motivated, but Kowalski's task was to look at the case as a potential civil rights violation.

Daniel Rinzel, Kowalski's boss at the time, recalls the day that Kowalski came to him to complain that he could not wrap up the case.

"He came in and said: 'I just can't close it. There are too many loose ends,' " said Rinzel, who was then head of the criminal section of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Instead of closing the case, Kowalski took it over.

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