WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It was a wretched jury decision that set off the Los Angeles powder keg that claimed 58 lives and perhaps a billion dollars worth of property. It is tragic, but unavoidable, that two more courtroom fuses have been lighted that could provoke more explosions of violence.
Judge Stanley M. Weisberg found that ''the interests of justice pTC require'' that Laurence M. Powell be retried on charges of assaulting the black motorist Rodney G. King ''under color of authority'' when he rained 56 baton blows upon Mr. King. In making his decision, Judge Weisberg must have thought what millions of Americans are now thinking: Dear God, what happens if a new jury acquits Officer Powell?
The policeman's attorney, Michael P. Stone, complains that Officer Powell probably cannot get a fair trial anywhere in California now. He has a legitimate concern that a new jury will feel that it must convict the policeman so as not to unleash new fury, not just in Los Angeles but in many cities across America.
Yet, Mr. Stone knows that just one stubborn juror who likes Officer Powell and detests Mr. King can block conviction and nullify all the evidence on the celebrated videotape of Mr. King's beating. One juror can produce a riotous reaction more destructive than anything we've seen so far. We can be thankful that the city of Los Angeles and the attorney for Rodney King are trying to reach an out-of-court settlement to avoid one more volatile courtroom confrontation.
Meanwhile, there is the case of the four black men who are accused of brutally beating the white truck driver Reginald Denny, and of picking his pockets as he lay battered and bleeding. This gruesome episode is on videotape, too.
In saner times, blacks in Los Angeles might say, ''We want the criminal-justice system to punish severely everyone who is found guilty of arson, murder, criminal assault and thievery. After all, the real victims of the latest riots were blacks, Koreans and Hispanics.'' But these are not sane times. If some white person hangs the jury in the Laurence Powell case, you can be sure that some blacks will hang the jury that considers the guilt of those accused of beating Mr. Denny -- or of toting sofas, televisions and fur coats out of trashed businesses.
There is a critical question as to whether any black leaders can get across the point that a refusal to convict and punish black criminals will only tell the thugs that they can prey upon black children and elderly blacks with impunity. Can anyone get the alienated and angry people of our cities to understand that a tit-for-tat acquittal of violent lawbreakers will only add poison to a society that is already sick from fear and racial and ethnic hatred?
Some American leaders have spent years tainting our criminal justice system with appointments based on race and political ideology, and by setting up rules of prosecution and sentencing that victimize young black males and the poor. Now that tainted system has become the monster that threatens us. So we ask who or what will steer us safely through the judicial minefields of Los Angeles -- and cities yet to claim our fearful attention.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.