If one more person claims the federal trial of the four officers accused of violating Rodney King's civil rights is a case of double jeopardy, I may jump from the top of the World Trade Center.
Syndicated columnist Mona Charen (Other Voices, Feb. 16) made the claim. William Safire followed on the same page March 2. Darryl Gates, former Los Angeles police chief, originally made the charge on ABC's "Nightline," which should have been a tip to Ms. Charen and Mr. Safire that the argument might lack just a smidgen of cogency. But it was columnist Safire himself who provided the best argument for the legality of the second King trial. Proving that his memory is not totally shot and that conservatives can actually be right about something once every few years, he correctly cited the primary reason for trials involving civil rights violations: the reluctance of all-white juries to convict whites of murdering blacks despite the preponderance of evidence for conviction.
We need only remember the cases of Medgar Evers in 1963 -- when the defendant was acquitted even though his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon -- or of Emmett Till in 1955. Till's murderers, after their acquittal, bragged to a writer for Look magazine about the grisly details of their crime. Mr. Safire points out that in similar cases, "Double jeopardy was rightly overlooked because white defendants were not really in jeopardy the first time."
It is at this point that Mr. Safire's reasoning powers fail him completely. In what sense were the four officers in the first King trial "really in jeopardy"? The trial venue was changed from Los Angeles to the predominantly white, ultra-conservative haven for retired cops called Simi Valley. The odds were that the officers would get a jury with a predisposition to acquit, and that's exactly what they got. They had about as much chance of being convicted of using excessive force as they had of being struck by a meteorite. The record of conviction in police brutality cases is as pathetic as the record of all-white Southern juries acquitting obvious murderers. In fact, it might be worse. At the very least, indictments were obtained in the more infamous civil rights cases in the South. But in some of the more celebrated cases of police use of excessive force, victims haven't even gotten the satisfaction of an indictment.
When Black Muslim Ronald Stokes was shot by Los Angeles police in April 1962, he was handcuffed, beaten over the head with night sticks and left on the sidewalk while police rounded up his cohorts. It took only one week for the city to rule Stokes' killing justifiable homicide.
Black Panther Fred Hampton was killed by Chicago police in a "shoot-out" while he was asleep. We must assume the cops figured Hampton was dreaming of shooting cops. No indictments were forthcoming. And let's not forget the first and most notorious example of police brutality captured on film. No, it wasn't the Rodney King case. It was the case of the Chicago police department's efficient pummeling of the children of middle America who had come to the 1968 Democratic National Convention to protest the Vietnam War. Again, while there was a wail of protest over the use of excessive force, and while numerous officers were identified in film taken of this notorious .. police riot, how many were indicted or punished?
So the officers on trial for violating the civil rights of Rodney King are in no "double jeopardy." There is no "affront to the Constitution" involved. But even if there were, the affront would be justified. The intent of the "double jeopardy" clause of the Fifth Amendment was clearly to prevent the persecution of innocent persons by oppressive, vindictive or capricious governments. It was not meant to protect those in power who victimize the powerless.
Any such law with that intention would be an affront to humanity.
Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer.