THE Justice Department has taken a risk in deciding to prosecute four Los Angeles police officers who participated in beating black motorist Rodney King last year. After a California state-court jury acquitted the four men in April, South Central Los Angeles erupted in perhaps the worst urban violence in United States history. If a federal jury similarly finds the officers not guilty, the despair and alienation of many poor Americans that ignited the L.A. riots could intensify.
But the risk is one that the federal government has to take. After viewing an onlooker's videotape of the baton-wielding policemen pummeling Mr. King as he lay on the ground, many Americans of all races regarded the acquittal of the white officers by an all-white jury as a mockery of justice.
Perhaps through a vigorous prosecution of the officers in a fair trial before a manifestly impartial and balanced jury, the feds can help dispel the belief held by many minorities that a Jim Crow system of justice still operates in America.
The officers are charged with violating King's civil rights under the US Constitution. Some critics contend that, as a matter of principle if not technically of law, the officers are being subjected to double jeopardy, since the federal case arises out of the same conduct as the state prosecution for using excessive force. But when it appears that a state has failed to uphold a citizen's constitutional rights, the federal government has an obligation to vindicate those rights that is distinct from the st ate's interest in enforcing its own criminal laws.
According to some legal scholars, the federal prosecutors face an uphill battle to convict the officers, as they bear an even more difficult burden of proof than did the California district attorney. A guilty verdict against the officers is not a foregone conclusion. The jurors will base their decision on all the evidence, including much that was not captured on the videotape. And they must not be intimidated into a guilty verdict by the prospect (or threats) of further rioting.
What matters in the second King trial is not just the verdict, but how and why it is reached. The trial can be a triumph of American justice, whatever the outcome.