TOPICS > Politics

Koon and Powell Supreme Court Decision

June 13, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This case involved federal sentencing guidelines. It was brought by the two former Los Angeles police officers convicted of violating Rodney King’s civil rights in 1991. We begin this background report from Correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles.

JEFFREY KAYE: Los Angeles erupted in flames in 1992 after four police officers were acquitted in state court of unlawfully beating Rodney King. One year later, authorities braced for more disturbances as two of the officers were acquitted and two convicted on federal charges of violating King’s civil rights. The city remained calm but the case sparked a legal battle over the nation’s federal sentencing system. Lawrence Powell and Stacy Koon were sentenced to thirty months in prison, far short of the seventy to eighty-seven month range which prosecutors maintain were mandated by federal sentencing guidelines.

TERREE BOWERS, Former U.S. Attorney: (August 1993) The government argued vigorously for its position. We are disappointed by the downward departures imposed today.

MR. KAYE: While Koon and Powell served out their prison terms, prosecutors appealed. They argued and an appellate court agreed that the judge should have stuck to the guidelines, a set of rules which set sentences based on types of crimes and criminal records. Judge John Davies ruled that because this was a unique case, he could depart from the guidelines. Davies concluded King had provoked his own beating by refusing to comply with the officers’ orders and by trying to evade arrest. He also said that because their notoriety, Koon and Powell had suffered by losing their jobs and might undergo further punishment in prison by abusive inmates. Hoping to avoid more prison time, the former police officers took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Powell’s lawyer, William Kopeny, defends the judge’s decision.

WILLIAM KOPENY, Lawyer for Powell: What the judge focused on was their punishment would be harder, they would be–they would either have to be kept in protective custody, which would be much more difficult than being in a general population prison, or they would have to every day of their life, every minute of their life in prison, suffer the psychological concern of, “Am I going to be stabbed in the back?”.

MR. KAYE: But U.S. attorney Nora Manella argues that this was a typical police brutality case and no special dispensation should be allowed because of its notoriety.

NORA MANELLA, U.S. Attorney, Los Angeles: As to the fact that it was a notorious case, we certainly wouldn’t want to create a discount for people simply because their behavior was so offensive that it caused outrage throughout the entire world. As to the likelihood of additional punishment in prison, umm, again, we don’t create discounts for people whose offenses are so bad that they may even offend their fellow inmates.

MR. KAYE: But beyond the specifics of this case is the debate over how defendants are sentenced. The complex federal sentencing guidelines were established in 1987 by a commission created by Congress to reduce disparities in sentences for defendants with similar criminal records who commit similar crimes. Since then, Congress has also passed additional laws establishing tough minimum sentences for particular crimes. Judges are allowed to go outside the guidelines in unusual cases, but many judges complain that too often, inflexible rules prevent them from evaluating cases on their merits.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Now for more on today’s decision from David Savage, legal reporter for the “Los Angeles Times.” David, tell us exactly what the court decided today.

DAVID SAVAGE, Los Angeles Times: Well, it decided that a federal appeals court made a mistake when it insisted on a six or seven year prison term for these two Los Angeles officers. This was actually a victory for federal trial judges, as well as the two police officers because, as Jeffrey Kaye alluded to, there’s been this debate that’s been running for about 10 years now about how much authority judges have to sentence criminals in the federal system. In the old days, which is say pre 1985, if I had robbed a bank and come before you to be sentenced, the law would say something like you as a judge should sentence me to somewhere between say three years and thirty years. It would be almost your decision entirely.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Total judicial discretion.

MR. SAVAGE: That’s right. You could consider a number of factors. You know, had I committed an offense, or did I have a gun, or something like that. The problem with that system is one bank robber would get 10 years and another person would commit almost the same crime and get 25 years.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Because he went before a different judge.

MR. SAVAGE: A different judge. So Congress stepped in, said that they wanted more uniform sentences. They set up this elaborate set of sentencing guidelines where now you as the judge sort of look up in a book–you get a manual, and you say, well, bank robbery seventeen, he had a gun, that’s five, um, he did this once before, that’s two points. You get all these points and then the book says give this guy twelve years to thirteen and a half years. In other words, you have almost no discretion. So the question was, and I think that’s the reason the court took this case, they were not particularly–I think took it was because it was a notorious case–they were trying to resolve this issue of how much authority judges should have, and in general, they ruled, higher courts should defer to judges, we ought to give judges a little more leeway to make these decisions. Judge Davies in this case went through all the factors, said two and a half years, thirty months. The federal appeals court said, no, the strict–follow the guidelines, seven years. The Supreme Court said today, no, we, we go with the judge. The judges should have a little more leeway.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: So you’re saying that the court today was sending a message about the guidelines more than they were agreeing with the original trial judge, that Rodney King provoked the beatings and, therefore, the sentences should be less than mandated?

MR. SAVAGE: Yes. I think that’s right. This will be read around the country as saying, judges, you, the higher court, should defer to the judge who’s heard the case, and, and if that judge has some good reasons for ignoring the guidelines, you should defer to the judge. But I will say, they said one of the reasons that it was appropriate for the judge in this case to give the lighter sentence was that this was a very unusual assault. These guys were sentenced as if they had committed an aggravated assault. Umm, but this was an unusual aggravated assault in the sense that the victim had something to do with causing the assault.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: So they did take that into consideration?

MR. SAVAGE: They did, they did. They said the judge properly took that into consideration.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: And was there any indication that they took into consideration also what the attorney–the prosecutor was arguing, that the–that what could happen to police officers in jail and any unnecessary behavior, you know, that, that that should not be discounted?

MR. SAVAGE: They, umm, Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion for the court. I should say it was a nine to nothing opinion. It was not the closely divided opinion. All of the judges–I think all the Justices agreed there should be a little more discretion. But, yes, Kennedy said it was reasonable to take that into some account, the fact that the officers could have a tough time in prison. He also said, sort of agreed with Judge Davies that there was a slight specter of unfairness here because these officers had been tried and acquitted and then retried. The one point he disagreed. Judge Davies said this will basically ruin their career as officers, and that’s a reason for departing from the sentence. The Supreme Court disagreed with that and said any government official, any police officer who violates the law, it should hurt your career.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: So where does this leave things specifically for Koon and Powell now that they’ve done time, 30 months of their sentence and they’re out free?

MR. SAVAGE: I think this means the end of the case for them. Technically, the court sent the case back to the judge and said, we agree with most of what you did, we don’t agree with all of it, take a look at it, you should reconsider it, but I think I would read that opinion as saying, 30 months is enough, and that they’re not going to be resentenced.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: And the larger significance of this ruling, you think?

MR. SAVAGE: I think it puts a little more play in the joints. There’s been a lot of–there’s something in this for liberals and conservatives.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: So to speak.

MR. SAVAGE: Yes, because the–there’s been a, a lot of liberals have done the most complaining that these sentencing guidelines are too, too stiff. They require too many judges to sentence inmates,j convicts to very long sentences. This sort of says judges can take into account that this person really doesn’t deserve whatever, ten or twenty years. So I think it’s, it’s a victory for that as well.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Now, your newspaper is based in Los Angeles, although you work here in Washington before the courts, but you know Los Angeles. What do you think the emotional temperature is going to be like when this, this decision hits out there?

MR. SAVAGE: To tell you the truth, I worried about that in writing the story today. I–this is a very–touches a live, you know, chord out there, and I hope that there’s been enough time passed, the fact that these fellows did serve two and a half years in prison, that it will not be seen as an outrage, but I’m sure a lot of people were disappointed with the court decision.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Well, David Savage, thank you.

MR. SAVAGE: Thank you.