LOS ANGELES — FIVE years ago, black motorist Rodney King was beaten by four white police officers while the nation watched via videotape. Two years ago two policemen were convicted for using unreasonable force in arresting Mr. King.
Today, the US Supreme Court revisits this high-profile, volatile case, examining if justice is better served by allowing judges leeway or requiring them to sentence according to rigid guidelines.
The high court's ruling could set precedents for a host of other federal court cases in which trial judges use their own discretion in interpreting the increasingly popular mandatory minimum sentences and other court guidelines.
On trial is federal District Court Judge John Davies's sentencing. He sent Los Angeles police officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell to prison for 30 months each - less than half of the 70 to 87 months called for under sentencing guidelines.
The sentencing debate was sparked by a set of federal guidelines issued in 1987, after a special commission determined that punishments without guidelines were confusing to the public and too often unfair to criminals.
If the Supreme Court rules the sentences were too light, Mr. Koon and Mr. Powell could be sent back to prison to serve up to 40 more months. If the high court upholds Judge Davies's decision, it will come as a blow to sentencing guidelines.
''These federal guidelines have been controversial ever since they were implemented 10 years ago,'' says Robert Pugsley, professor of law at Southwestern School of Law, in Los Angeles. He notes the legal parameters have been under attack in a wide range of cases such as how to sentence ''crack'' cocaine pushers vs. the sentencing of those selling less potent cocaine powder. ''Lawyers and judges across the country will welcome any light the justices can shed in clarifying the guidelines.''
In handing down the lighter sentences, Judge Davies cited the loss of the officers' jobs and said the federal civil rights trial coming after acquittals for state criminal charges created a ''specter of unfairness.'' He weighed their exemplary family lives and the officers' successful careers as mitigating factors. He also held that King's irregular behavior during and after a high-speed chase contributed to the beating.
But a panel of judges for the Ninth US Court of Appeals ruled that none of Davies's reasons was sufficient to justify shortened sentences. The panel ordered Davies to impose sentences within the guidelines.
''There is no doubt that Judge Davies departed significantly from the restrictions of the guidelines,'' says Myrna Raeder, vice chairwoman of the American Bar Association's section on Federal Rules of Evidence and Criminal Procedure. ''That should make this a clear test.''
Observers say attorneys arguing on the behalf of the Ninth Circuit court will hold that if judges depart from guidelines because the defendant is a police officer, they will ensure that police officers will always be handled more sympathetically by judges than other defendants will be.
Attorneys for Davies will argue that judges should have the discretion to take a look at myriad factors in addition to the facts of a case. Such factors as the backgrounds of offenders shed light on their actions and motives, they say.
''Most federal judges hate the guidelines, because they feel they are too restrictive in disregarding the judging of a whole person,'' Ms. Raeder says.
Some observers say the particular details of the King case could mitigate the precedent-setting possibilities of the decision. The white vs. black, police vs. citizen components and the publicity it received make the case an emotional volcano that could erupt again.
Arguments are expected to take no more than a day, and a decision is expected in eight to 16 weeks.