A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Officer Laurence M. Powell and Sgt. Stacey C. Koon to spend 2 1/2 years in prison for violating Rodney G. King's civil rights, a sentence far less than requested by prosecutors and one that brought the wrenching case to a controversial finale.
"The task is not an easy one," U.S. District Judge John G. Davies said as the long-awaited sentencing hearing opened. "I have tried to treat all of the participants, not as symbols, but as individuals."
Far from treating the officers as symbols of racism or police brutality--as they often have been cast--Davies described them in warm personal terms, noting that Koon is an Air Force veteran, father of five and a "successful police officer with an extraordinary record." Powell, Davies added, did not have quite as distinguished a police record, but comes from "a family where he has enjoyed the strong support of his parents and four brothers and sisters."
In contrast, he blamed King for provoking the incident that set in motion more than two years of civic soul-searching and three days of deadly rioting after Koon, Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind were found not guilty in state court.
Despite requests from federal prosecutors that Powell spend 7 to 9 years in prison and Koon 9 to 10 years, Davies opted for 30 months each. He also rejected requests that the officers be fined and ordered to pay restitution to King. Their only financial penalty was an order that each pay a special court assessment of $50.
Davies, a moderate conservative appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan in 1986, gave the officers until Sept. 27 to report to the Bureau of Prisons. Although federal prisoners are not eligible for parole, they may receive a 15% reduction in their sentences for good behavior.
Outrage mixed with resignation as news of the sentences swept through Los Angeles. Some worried about possible fallout, while others, particularly in the city's black community, complained that the officers had been let off too easily for a crime that shocked the city and the world.
Joseph Duff, president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke for many when he said: "This is a travesty of justice as opposed to a measure of justice."
Erik Rasmussen, one of the jurors in the trial, criticized the sentences as too lenient, saying the officers deserved prison terms of between five and seven years.
"I didn't think the punishment fit the crime," said Rasmussen, a welder from Fullerton, who took the day off to watch the sentencing on television.
With emotions charged over the sentencing, the LAPD went on tactical alert at 7 a.m. Wednesday, with all plainclothes detectives ordered to report in uniform and all shifts continuing several hours past their usual end. By 4 p.m., the alert was lowered to "a modified tactical alert," said press relations officer Don Cox, who described the city as "very quiet" as of early evening.
Cox said he expected no extraordinary police efforts other than "an increased awareness."
In a live television address to the city just minutes after the sentences were imposed, Mayor Richard Riordan called on residents to put the long case behind them. "The judicial system worked," Riordan said, "maybe not the way that many of us would like it to have worked, but it did work."
In fact, the sentences pleased few people, with critics of the officers angrily denouncing them as unfairly lenient and supporters bemoaning that Powell and Koon will be forced to go to prison. The mood was somber at Parker Center, the police headquarters, as officers worried about the fate that awaited their colleagues behind bars.
"There's no elation," one officer said. "They're going to the joint."
Lawyers for Koon and Powell had argued that the two men deserved to spend less than a year in prison or to receive probation.
"It is harsh," Michael P. Stone, the lawyer for Powell, said of the sentences. "But it is harsh because the law requires it."
In court, Koon was typically unfazed, standing erect at the podium as Judge Davies formally imposed the sentence. Powell, however, was ashen and his voice wavered when he spoke briefly to answer a question from Davies. Behind him, Powell's mother, sister and girlfriend sobbed openly as his sentence was handed down.
They left the courtroom without commenting, shielded from the press by U.S. marshals who escorted the family out of the building.
Even before the hearing was over, prosecutors were hinting that they might appeal the sentence. Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer, one of two lead prosecutors, guardedly responded to a question from Davies by noting that he would not make any statement that might jeopardize the government's appellate rights.
Later, U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers delivered a short statement indicating the government's dissatisfaction with the sentences.