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High Court Delivers Setback for Justice by the Manual

Ruling in Koon-Powell case may be a turning point

June 16, 1996

From the first shocking videotaped images, the case against the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King has been about race and politics as well as justice. The political reaction to King's beating, including the widespread rioting that resulted from the officers' acquittal on state assault charges, represented divergent attitudes among various racial groups in the city.

Yet the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous ruling Thursday upholding the relatively lenient sentences that the trial judge imposed on former policemen Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell on federal civil rights counts should also send a message to Congress and the appellate courts about the rigid federal sentencing scheme.

A jury convicted Koon and Powell on the federal civil rights abuse charges in 1993. Federal sentencing guidelines, drafted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission as directed by Congress, set forth a range of prison terms for specific crimes. Under these guidelines, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies could have sent both men to prison for between 70 and 87 months for violating King's civil rights. Instead, each received a 30-month sentence.

Davies cited four factors in justifying his "downward departures" from the sentencing guidelines: He believed that the ex-officers would be unusually susceptible to abuse in prison; they had been subjected to successive state and federal prosecutions; they posed a low risk of recidivism, and they lost their jobs as a result of the prosecution.

On appeal, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruled that Davies should not have departed from the guidelines and, by implication, that Koon and Powell should have drawn longer sentences. Its ruling is not unlike that of many appellate courts, often more skeptical than supportive of sentence reductions by trial judges.

But the high court has disagreed. It said some of the reasons Davies used to impose a shorter sentence were legally sound and some were not. The court returned the case to Davies to reconsider the length of the sentence in light of its guidance. Koon and Powell are now free, each having served his 30-month sentence, and they are likely to remain so.

But if this case is all but closed for the individuals involved, the court issued a significant and welcome statement about the unique role of trial judges in sentencing that will apply broadly.

At issue is the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which sets forth guidelines, in a manual, intended to ensure uniformity in sentencing across the federal system. The manual assigns points for mitigating and aggravating circumstances that are to be tallied to determine the proper sentence.

The lack of latitude on the bench has chafed judges around the country. Several have resigned.

"It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition," the court ruled, "for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and punishment to ensue. We do not understand it to have been the congressional purpose to withdraw all sentencing discretion from the United States district judge."

When reviewing a trial court's sentencing decision, the court continued, appellate courts should not recalculate the sentence itself but should consider only whether the judge committed an abuse of discretion.

Technically, the Supreme Court is speaking just to appellate judges reviewing the records in criminal cases, far removed from the trial courtrooms where defendants plead their cases. The nine justices have sent an important message to those appellate courts about the primacy of trial judges in sentencing. But the court may have sent a message to Congress as well, about the importance of judicial discretion and the need to ensure that trial judges have more of it, not less. That's a message we hope Congress hears clearly.

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