Fallout From Police Trial Verdict
The L.A. case raises legal questions about change of venue and differing standards for criminal and civil proceedings
LOS ANGELES — AS this community awaits the next step in legal proceedings in the Rodney King case, fallout from the state criminal trial that acquitted four white police officers is reverberating from coast to coast.
* A Miami judge has switched the location (venue) of a Florida murder trial from Orlando to Tallahassee to find a jury pool reflective of the racial mix in Miami, where the murder took place.
* New Jersey lawmakers have enacted legislation requiring demographics to be considered in trials where changes of venue are requested. California legislators are proposing a similar law to ensure that when trials are moved, the jury will be representative of the defendant's community.
* Judge Jon Newman of the United States Court of Appeals has urged Congress to authorize the United States Department of Justice to sue the city or county that employs officers who use excessive force. These federal civil suits would result in money judgments for the victims of police brutality and punitive damages payable to the federal government.
"The King case has clearly touched a nerve in the American legal community and may possibly catalyze changes many have thought long overdue," says Robert Pugsley, professor of law at Southwestern University in Los Angeles.
Five prosecutors from the US Justice Department are presenting evidence to a federal grand jury in hopes of obtaining indictments against the four white police officers acquitted April 29 of state criminal charges. Under US Code Sections 241 and 242, the officers could be tried for conspiring to violate, and violating, black motorist Rodney King's civil rights in the Mar. 3, 1991 beating.
Mr. King's attorney will await the federal prosecutor's determination before deciding to proceed with his own civil-rights suit, already filed, against the City of Los Angeles. A decision is expected from the L.A. District attorney's office by May 15 on whether officer Laurence Powell will be retried on the count of using excessive force, which the jury left unresolved against him.
Legal scholars say several lessons, questions, and themes from the state trial are being underscored in heated national debate:
* Changes of venue: How can a jury of peers best be found that is sufficiently unbiased by media reports to render a fair verdict?
* Double jeopardy: Is it fair or effective for the federal government to pursue defendants already acquitted in state criminal proceedings?
* Criminal vs. civil proceedings: What is the legal and practical distinction between "beyond a reasonable doubt" (the standard for criminal conviction) and "preponderance of evidence" (the standard for civil liability)?
"These vexing legal issues apply not only to the King case but will be with us into the foreseeable future on any case which has political as well as racial significance," adds Southwestern's Professor Pugsley.
No aspect of the state's unsuccessful prosecution of the four white police officers is getting more post-trial examination than the trial's change of venue, which removed the proceedings from metropolitan Los Angeles.
The change was requested by the officers' lawyers. The State Judicial Council gave three alternative county trial sites to L.A. Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg.
Bypassing Riverside County (near Los Angeles) and Alameda County (near San Francisco and Oakland) - both with heavy mixes of minority population - Judge Weisberg chose Simi Valley, a predominantly white exurban community in Ventura County, north of L.A.
"These were just the kind of people who were predisposed to favor a policeman's point of view," said Sheldon Nahmod, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent University, citing neighborhood demographic studies revealing high concentrations of both current and retired policemen.
THOUGH objections were raised at the time of the venue switch, the judge cited reasons of cost and convenience. Prosecutors are being criticized for not arguing more vigorously against the relocation on grounds that demographics were not adequately considered in the decision. The change of venue choice and approval of Judge Weisberg's decision by the California Court of Appeals will be the subject of intense legal and public scrutiny for months.
"The American law community learned from this switch that the judge certainly should not give the weight to such factors [of convenience]," notes David Rudovsky, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "We are looking for justice, and justice sometimes isn't the cheapest route."
With the worldwide publicity of the recent Los Angeles riots, the problem of venue is exacerbated for subsequent civil and federal trials. "The best future judges will be able to do is select jurors who can be fair in the sense of being able to put aside what they've heard about the case," says Professor Rudovsky.
Although Justice Department officials have not yet made a final determination about their involvement in subsequent proceedings, experts are concerned about a new federal trial. Because of federal-state, "dual sovereignties," federal prosecutors have authority to initiate separate criminal proceedings based on federal statutes that prohibit violations of a citizen's civil rights.
"Federal prosecutors will have to prove that Rodney King was intentionally beaten 'under color of state authority,' " notes Myrna Raeder, a professor of law at Southwestern School of Law. "If prosecutors also charge conspiracy, proving that will not be a piece of cake."
Mr. King's federal civil-rights suit against the City of Los Angeles carries different parameters from either state or federal criminal proceedings. Besides different burdens of proof, criminal proceedings seek punitive results - prison time or criminal fines for convicted defendants - while civil actions seek compensatory damages for the individual victims, such as remuneration for medical expenses and lost wages.
"The burden of proof [which establishes liability in a civil action] showing the 'preponderance of evidence' is much easier to meet than is proving guilt 'beyond a reasonable doubt," notes Edward Ohlbaum, a professor of law at Temple University in Philadelphia.