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Shofar FTP Archive File: orgs/canadian/canada/justice/hate-motivated-violence/hmv-006-00

Archive/File: orgs/canadian/canada/justice/hate-motivated-violence/hmv-006-00
Last-Modified: 1997/01/23
Source: Department of Justice Canada


6.1 The Rodney King Case

On March 3, 1991, in Los Angeles, California, several police
cars chased Rodney G. King, a robbery parolee who was
allegedly speeding. Two friends were with him in the car.
After a police chase during which he drove through several
intersections against red lights, King eventually was forced
to stop. Although the two passengers in the car complied
with police requests to exit the car and were subdued with
minor resistance, King apparently refused to exit the car
and was physically assisted in doing so. He was subsequently
struck as many as 56 times by officers wielding batons,
kicked at least six times, and shot with a Taser electronic
stun gun. The beating was administered by three Los Angeles
police officers, allegedly at the order of a police sergeant
who was on the scene. Twenty-three other law enforcement
officers were also present and watched the beating, but
apparently made no effort to stop it. There were also
several civilian bystanders, including George Holiday, who
witnessed the incident. Holiday videotaped the beating of
King. King suffered extensive injuries as a result of the
beating, including skull fractures and nerve damage to part
of his face.<178>

On March 15, 1991, three police officers -- Laurence Powell,
Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno -- and police sergeant
Stacey Koon, were indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury in
connection with the beating. All four were charged with
"assault by force likely to produce great bodily injury and
a deadly weapon" and with assault "under color of
authority". The deadly weapons involved were police batons
or nightsticks, except in the case of Briseno, who was
charged only with using his feet to kick King. Powell and
Koon also were charged with filing false reports, and Koon
was charged with being an accessory. Koon did not actively
participate in the beating but allegedly aided and abetted

Prior to the trial on these charges, the accused sought to
obtain a change of venue for the trial to a county other
than Los Angeles County. The change of venue application,
originally denied at trial, was granted on appeal. The
California Court of Appeal, Second District, approved the
change of venue application, given the extensive pre-trial
publicity surrounding the case, the fact that the
defendants' being police officers had caused a high level of
indignation and outrage, and political factors involving
criticism of the then Chief of Police, Daryl Gates.<180> The
trial site chosen was Simi Valley in Ventura County. Simi
Valley is a predominantly white, middle-class community 35
miles from downtown Los Angeles. The jury comprised ten
white persons, one Hispanic person, and one Asian person.

On April 29, 1992, the jury rendered its verdicts, generally
finding the accused not guilty of the charges.<181> The
result of the verdicts was immediate: rioting, which
resulted in loss of life and extensive damage to property
(more than 50 dead and upwards of one billion dollars in
damage). Many legal commentators argued that a major reason
for the verdicts of not guilty was the change of venue to a
location that was not comparable demographically to Los
Angeles County.<182>

These acquittals on state criminal charges, however, did not
end the matter. Under federal law, the officers could also
be prosecuted for violation of Rodney King's constitutional
rights. In August 1992, a federal grand jury returned a two-
count indictment charging that Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell,
Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno, while under colour of
law, deprived Rodney King of his federally protected civil
rights. The first count of the indictment charged three of
the defendants -- Powell, Wind, and Briseno -- with
violating King's federal constitutional rights by wilfully
using unreasonable force against him while arresting him.
The second count of the indictment charged Koon, then a
sergeant of the Los Angeles Police Department, with
violating King's federal constitutional rights by wilfully
permitting the three other officers to unlawfully assault
him, thereby wilfully depriving him of his right to be kept
free from harm while in official custody. Both counts
charged violations of 18 U.S.C. 242, which, if injury
results to the victim, is punishable by a maximum term of
ten years' imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.<183> As
previously noted,<184> section 242 generally makes it a
crime for anyone under colour of law to deprive any
inhabitant of any state, territory or district of any rights
protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.
The jury in this instance was composed of nine white
persons, two black persons and one Hispanic person.

On Friday, April 17, 1993, the jury rendered its verdicts on
these prosecutions. Two police officers, Stacey Koon and
Laurence Powell, were found guilty of the charges against
them. The other two officers, Theodore Briseno and Timothy
Wind, were found not guilty. Unlike the previous trial, no
riots broke out as a result of the verdicts. Instead, there
appeared to be a collective sigh of relief. On August 4,
1993, these officers were sentenced to two and a half years
in prison for the beating of Rodney King.<185>

Although the Rodney King beating and the subsequent
acquittals at the first state trial clearly raised in the
public's mind the issue of racism in American society, none
of the prosecutions specifically alleged racial motivation.
Indeed, it was only at the later federal trial that Rodney
King, taking the stand for the first time, initially
testified that the officers had made racial epithets at the
time of his beating; even then, he later had to admit that
he was unsure that the police did in fact use such epithets.

How is it that, after generally being acquitted at trial on
state criminal charges, the police officers responsible for
beating Rodney King were able to be prosecuted again under
federal law? In the United States, the courts have applied a
"dual sovereignty doctrine" that generally allows a state to
prosecute a person under state law after the person has been
prosecuted under federal law, or allows the federal
government to prosecute a person under federal law after the
person has been prosecuted under state law, even though the
state or federal violation arises out of the same act and
even though the state and federal offences are substantially
the same.<187> However, the dual sovereignty doctrine has
been limited somewhat by federal policy and by various state

In the context of federal civil rights prosecutions, this
means that there is no constitutional double jeopardy bar to
launching a federal criminal prosecution in the event that,
at an earlier state trial, an accused was acquitted of the
crime charged. There has been criticism of this approach.
For example, the American Civil Liberties Union recently
voted to oppose as unconstitutional the federal civil rights
trial of the officers who beat Rodney King, saying it
violates the officers' right not to be tried twice for the
same offence.<189>

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