Delay in Police Sentences Flames L.A. Controversy

Black leaders protest, but legal experts defend judge's decision to temporarily release officers convicted in beating of motorist Rodney King

ONCE again, the Los Angeles minority community is asking the question, ``Is the law colorblind?''

The surprise move Sept. 27 by United States District Judge John Davies to delay the prison sentences of two former police officers convicted in the beating of motorist Rodney King has troubled those who feel that whites were granted leniency in a case in which blacks would not have been.

Judge Davies agreed to a last-ditch effort by lawyers to keep former Sgt. Stacey Koon and former Officer Laurence Powell out of prison while the US Supreme Court decides whether they should remain free on bail during appeals of their convictions.

Several black leaders have denounced the move in press conferences. Others have appeared on call-in talk shows, and some have staged organized protests.

An example of the latter was a small gathering outside the L.A. federal courthouse, in which participants chanted and carried signs reading, ``No justice, no peace.'' Awkward timing

The judge's decision is viewed as untimely at best, because it coincides with the trial of two black men on charges of beating a white trucker - a case that is now nearing completion.

But several legal experts say the judge's decision is not out of the ordinary, is not tied to racial or political inequities in the US justice system, and is only a temporary step, in any case. By Oct. 12, possibly earlier, the two former officers will either be granted or denied the option of bail by the US Supreme Court.

If the option is granted, Mr. Koon and Mr. Powell can post bail to remain free for six months to one year before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules on their appeals. If it is denied, sentences will commence.

``There is a lot of confusion fanning the heated response to Judge Davies's action,'' says Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles who has followed the King case since its inception 2 1/2 years ago. ``But when his decision is properly understood, most will feel the reaction is a tempest in a teapot.''

When four white officers were acquitted in state court on April 29, 1992, three nights of citywide violence caused nearly $1 billion in damage and 53 deaths. Retried in federal court this year, Koon and Powell were found guilty of violating Mr. King's civil rights while two fellow officers were cleared.

They were sentenced by Davies on Aug. 4 to 30 months in prison, a sentence widely criticized as too lenient.

Those sentences were set to begin Sept. 27, at the minimum-security Dublin Federal Prison Camp near San Francisco.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Koon and Powell filed appeals of the federal convictions. They are preparing a case to argue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, holding that the convictions should be reversed based on errors of procedure in the federal trial.

The alleged errors include the use of a videotaped testimony from a previous trial, as well as use of evidence derived from an internal police investigation. Why judge granted delay

Strictly interpreted, federal sentencing guidelines hold that those convicted of crimes of violence are not entitled to bail pending appeals of their conviction. Davies himself had denied requests for Koon and Powell to remain free on bail and a separate, federal appeals court had also twice turned down such requests.

But two of the appeals judges had issued strongly worded 10-page dissents, arguing in favor of bail. Davies now holds that US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor should be given time to review the dissents to see if she is swayed by them.

At least two factors argue in favor of Koon and Powell, legal experts here claim: (1) As highly visible defendants with families and ties to the community, they are minimal flight risks - the primary reason for denying bail. And (2) federal guidelines do notexplicitly equate excessive-force violations in civil rights cases with actual ``crimes of violence.''

``There is an emotional response claiming, in effect, that the system of justice is tilted in favor of whites,'' Mr. Pugsley says. But he notes that such requests to remain free on bail are granted about 50 percent of the time based on the nature of the crime and the flight risk posed.

``But the bigger, more important question is what the US Supreme Court eventually decides on whether excessive force under color of law is a crime which should be denied bail under federal guidelines,'' Puglsey says.

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