High court questions sentencing in King case 2 policemen in beating may face more jail time

June 14, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court brought back to the limelight yesterday the celebrated case of the videotaped police beating of a black motorist in Los Angeles and raised the possibility that two convicted officers may have to return to prison to serve more time.

In a decision that split the court three ways, the justices ruled that the two policemen were entitled to some credit -- time off their potential sentences -- for special circumstances in their case involving the battering of Rodney G. King five years ago.

But it rejected other credits given by a federal judge and told the judge to reconsider the sentences of the police officers, Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell. With the credits, each originally received 30 months. They have served their time and were released in December.

The beating of King, recorded on videotape by a bystander, led first to prosecutions of the police in state court. A jury found them not guilty, a verdict that set off riots in Los Angeles. The uprising left more than 40 dead and 2,000 injured and property damage of nearly $1 billion.

After that, the officers were prosecuted in federal court for violating King's civil rights and were found guilty. If normal guidelines had been followed in their case, they would have faced sentences of between 70 and 87 months.

But the federal judge said that their case was unusual and that he should reduce that range considerably and gave them 30 months each. Sentencing guidelines law allows departures for unusual cases. These were the Supreme Court's rulings on the specific credits: Koon and Powell receive credit because King provoked the illegal use of force by resisting arrest, the court said by unanimous vote.

They also get credit for the prospect of being targets of abuse in prison because of the publicity and the riots that came after their state prosecutions failed; the vote was 6-3 on that point.

They receive credit for having to undergo a state trial followed by a federal trial; the vote was 6-3.

They were not entitled, the court decided by an 8-1 vote, to any credit on the ground that their police careers were destroyed, and no credit, it ruled unanimously, on the ground that they were unlikely to be repeat offenders.

The court said it was unclear how those varying results would affect the sentence that Koon and Powell should receive, so the judge must now recalculate.

Besides ruling on the Koon and Powell sentencing, the court used their case to issue a broad ruling that restores some power of federal judges to tailor criminal sentences more closely to the individuals and crimes involved, instead of being limited tightly by sentencing guidelines.

By a unanimous vote, the court said that when a judge has departed from guidelines because a case is considered unusual, those departures ordinarily should be left intact by an appeals courts.

Patient-therapist privilege

In a separate ruling, the court for the first time created a right -- in lawsuits in federal court -- to keep secret what a patient has told a therapist in counseling sessions.

Lower federal courts were split on whether federal evidence rules recognizes a right not to be forced to disclose what has been said during counseling. By a vote of 7-2, the court decided to recognize such a right.

Its decision came in the case of a police officer in a Chicago suburb who sought counseling after she shot to death a man who was threatening another man with a knife. The officer went to a mental health caseworker to help cope with the trauma of the shooting.

Later, the family of the dead man sued the officer for damages for the shooting and sought access to the policewoman's counseling records for use as evidence about the incident. Yesterday, the court ruled that those records could be kept confidential.

Drunk criminals

In another ruling, the court split 5-4 in upholding a Montana law that bars juries from considering a criminal suspect's voluntary drunkenness or intoxication when it decides whether the person was mentally capable at the time of the crime of breaking the law.

The state's high court had struck down that law last year, saying the jury must be allowed to consider any evidence that would bear on the suspect's mental state at the time of the crime. Reviving that law, the Supreme Court said states have wide discretion under the Constitution to determine their own laws on what evidence juries may hear.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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