WASHINGTON — In a ruling that sends the Rodney G. King police beating case back to Los Angeles for at least one more hearing, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found Thursday that King's "misconduct" and the burden of a double trial justified the lenient, 30-month sentences imposed on two officers found guilty of violating his civil rights.
By a 9-0 vote, the justices concluded that higher courts should generally defer to a federal sentencing judge--a ruling that gives jurists broader discretion in handing out prison terms and represents the Supreme Court's first foray into the controversial area of applying federal sentencing guidelines.
And in the King case, the high court agreed with U.S. District Judge John G. Davies that King's behavior justified a reduction in the officers' sentences.
The ruling upholds most of the grounds for the 30-month sentences imposed on former LAPD Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and former Officer Laurence M. Powell, who were convicted in 1993 after one of the most closely watched criminal trials of modern times. News of the guilty verdicts on that cool April morning drew applause and tears of joy in Los Angeles--one year after rioters tore through the city over the not-guilty verdicts for those same officers in Superior Court.
Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno, the two other officers charged in both cases, were acquitted both times. They were fired from the Los Angeles Police Department and have quietly moved on to other careers.
Had the Supreme Court sided Thursday with prosecutors in their appeal of the sentences imposed on Koon and Powell, the two former officers, who were freed late last year, would probably have been sent back to prison. Instead, they will almost certainly remain free, though Davies will have to reconsider their sentences one more time in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
As for King, he won a $3.8-million judgment from the city and then weathered a series of run-ins with police. On Thursday, his lawyer said King only wants to put the long saga behind him.
"Mr. King's position is that we should close the books and move on," said Edi M.O. Faal, an Orange County lawyer who represents King. "They already have served their time in prison, and Mr. King does not believe they need to serve more."
The officers were swamped with well-wishers, and their lawyers and supporters hailed the rulings. Ira Salzman, who represented Koon at the federal trial, called the court decision "a great victory for every judge that sentences people" and said Koon had greeted it with joy and relief. Conservative activist Richard A. Delgaudio, who held a homecoming dinner for Powell upon his release from custody, described the ruling as "a rebuke to the Justice Department of Janet Reno."
Others were less buoyant.
The Rev. Cecil Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, declined to comment on the effect of the ruling but reiterated his belief that the 30-month sentences were too short. "Normally justice should be tempered by mercy," Murray said. "[Davies] seemed to reverse that to mercy tempered by justice."
Speaking for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that the videotaped beating of King had made it a case of worldwide renown. The court was not reviewing the guilt of the two officers, he stressed.
Instead, the justices took up the case to consider a raging controversy in the federal judiciary over the authority of trial judges to set criminal sentences.
Until 1984, federal judges had wide leeway in handing down sentences. But in Congress, liberals were complaining about sentences that were too harsh, particularly against the poor and minorities, while conservatives were citing examples of soft treatment.
An unusual coalition in Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 to try to standardize criminal sentences. Regardless of where a federal criminal was convicted or which judge he appeared before, the defendant should get roughly the same sentence for the same offense, according to the theory behind the law.
A sentencing manual lays out points for criminal offenses, along with points for mitigating and aggravating circumstances. A judge is supposed to tally up the points and hand out the sentence prescribed in the manual.
Not surprisingly, judges around the country have chafed at the system. In the last decade, several have resigned from the bench, complaining that they are no longer willing to be bound by the strict sentencing rules. Thursday's decision marks the first time that the Supreme Court has squarely considered the issue, and it came down on the side of restoring more leeway to trial judges.
It is true the sentencing guidelines sought to "reduce unjustified disparities" in sentences, Kennedy said, and move toward "the evenhandedness and neutrality that are the distinguishing marks of any principled system of justice."