Sentencing Koon and Powell

August 06, 1993

U.S. District Court Judge John G. Davies' sentencing of Sgt. Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell, the two Los Angeles police officers convicted in the Rodney King beating, was much more lenient than most observers anticipated. They could be out in 26 or 27 months.

Federal prosecutors recommended sentences that would have kept one of the officers in prison for at least six years and the other for a minimum of just over seven and a half years. So we are not surprised Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. of the NAACP charged that the sentences "display a wanton disparity, discrimination and inequity based on race. . . a double standard of justice."

We hope Judge Davies did not base his decision on race. His stated reasons are unsettling enough. For instance, he said the men should not have been charged in federal court after they had been acquitted in state court. But they were charged and convicted in his court, and for him to reduce the sentence so drastically for that reason is not justified under the federal sentencing guidelines.

Those guidelines were either (1) misapplied or (2) not conformed to in this sentencing. Even Judge Davies concedes that may be true.

Sentence appeals are authorized under the law. Attorney General Janet Reno should order the U.S. attorneys handling the case to appeal promptly. It is not a good idea to leave the judge's decision festering, especially in L.A., where a related high-visibility trial is under way involving blacks who assaulted a white in apparent retaliation for the original acquittal of Mr. King's assailants.

If an appeals court upholds Judge Davies, at least the public would know this apparently unfair sentence was a product of a flaw in the legal system, not the conscious or unconscious racism of one judge. Flaws can be corrected.

We regard the sentence as lenient only because it is so out of sync with sentencing guidelines. For the guidelines to work, sentences must conform. But we have also come to believe that the guidelines as presently written over-punish. For ex-policemen, 26 to 27 months is a long time, real punishment. Life is very hard and can even be dangerous for former cops behind bars. Furthermore, these two have been severely (deservedly) punished in other ways: loss of careers, burdensome legal bills, nationwide notoriety, their city polarized and the scene of riots.

Whatever the final disposition of this case, the message has been sent loud and clear to police officers that what happened to Rodney King is not acceptable law enforcement and that those who resort to such tactics can find themselves as damaged as their victim.


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