“Can’t we all just get along?” That’s a question Rodney King asked after his beating by Los Angeles police in March 1991.
King, a paroled felon, was fleeing from police. After a high-speed chase, he finally gave up, but he was intoxicated and resisted arrest. Police tackled him in public view on a California highway, and George Holliday recorded the bludgeoning of the helpless man. Then Holliday gave the footage to local TV station KTLA.
This event, because of the gut-wrenching video, became worldwide news. The video showed a helpless King lying on the ground, with police beating him with their batons and kicking him. California charged four police officers for use of excessive force. Three were acquitted, and the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on the fourth officer.
Then-President George H.W. Bush said: “The court system has worked. What’s needed now is calm, respect for the law.”
“Calm” didn’t happen. The video that clearly showed the brutality of King’s beating, combined with the failure to convict those who beat him, provided the ingredients for a disaster. This combustible mixture — a videotape and an acquittal — literally blew up. The 1992 riots caused loss of life and devastated a large chunk of Los Angeles.
According to history.com, “The three days of disorder killed more than 60 people, injured almost 2,000, led to 7,000 arrests, and caused nearly $1 billion in property damage, including the burnings of more than 3,000 buildings.”
Federal authorities stepped in. Three months after the acquittals in the state court, a federal grand jury indicted four officers for violating King’s civil rights. In April 1993, a federal jury convicted the two police officers who struck the most blows and acquitted the other two officers.
Of course, the devastation and loss of life from the riots had already happened. There was no way to unring that bell. But did the convictions at least result in some sort of sense of justice being done — finally?
Then-President Bill Clinton commented on the federal trial: “Surely the lasting legacy of the Rodney King trial ought to be ... a determination to reaffirm our common humanity and to make a strength of our diversity.”
He added: “If we can do that, we can get on about the business of this great land.”
In August 1993, a federal judge sentenced the convicted police officers to 2½ years in prison.
Arguably, the federal convictions of two officers in the wake of the state acquittals offered a less unsettling conclusion than letting them get off with no penalties for their brutality. Society has a right to demand more of its judicial system than acquittals in the face of such irrefutable evidence that the video provided.
Sometimes the first attempt at justice fails. Should a second attempt be permitted?
The second attempt benefited, perhaps, from the first failure. The federal prosecution team called to the stand a different lineup of witnesses, including a civilian man and woman who had witnessed the beating but whom state prosecutors had failed to call. The Los Angeles Times covered the two witnesses’ testimony and reported that witness Dorothy Gibson “broke down in tears after recalling the violent scene she saw from her apartment patio ... .”
Gibson testified that King “didn’t do anything.” She said, “He was just dodging blows. He was on the ground. It seemed I heard him scream out, ‘Please stop!’”
And she described what she saw the police doing: “They were kicking him. I saw them kicking him with their feet on both sides of his body. On his feet, his shoulders, any way they could get a lick at him.”
The prosecutor even had Gibson move from the stand to demonstrate the way officers kicked King. Then the prosecutor asked, “Can you approximate how many times the officers struck the man with their sticks?” Gibson answered, “So many times, I couldn’t tell.”
Rodney King testified, too. State prosecutors hadn’t called him to the stand. Speculation about that decision include this: King had made some inconsistent statements, so prosecutors were afraid he wouldn’t be a good witness.
State prosecutors were apparently wrong. The “Famous Trials” website by UMKC Law Professor Doug Linder, available at famous-trials.com, contains this account of King’s testimony: King testified that while police were beating him, they “were chanting either ‘What’s up killer? How do you feel killer? [or] What’s up ner?’” King testified he wasn’t sure which word the police were using.
Racial diversity of jurors was also an issue. In the state trial, there were no African-American jurors. In the federal trial, there were two African-American jurors. Also, there was a change in defense lawyers.
But should the U.S. justice system have been given this second bite at the apple to convict the officers?
Clearly, the U.S. Constitution forbids “double jeopardy.” The Fifth Amendment says: “... nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb ... .”
The criminal justice system has been following the so-called “separate sovereigns” doctrine, which holds that a person is only in “double jeopardy” if the same sovereign tries the person twice. But, if different “sovereigns” want to try the person, that’s not double jeopardy.
So, for example, let’s say somebody commits a crime on federal land within the state of Missouri. In our hypothetical, an individual murders someone in the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways area in southern Missouri. Both Missouri and federal authorities would have power to try the alleged murderer because Missouri and the feds have concurrent jurisdiction over that area.
Under the separate-sovereigns doctrine, the alleged murderer could be tried by the state AND by the federal government. The state could try the defendant, and if the jury fails to convict, then the feds could try the defendant. Or if the feds tried first and failed, then the state could try the defendant.
But is that fair? The U.S. Supreme Court will decide. On Dec. 6 the Court heard arguments in the case of Terance Gamble, a convicted robber who was not supposed to have a gun under Alabama or federal law that prohibits firearms possession by felons. Both Alabama and the federal government sentenced him for illegal firearms possession.
Stay tuned. The implications of the Gamble case are fodder to ponder. Should the United States in effect gamble by tossing the separate-sovereign doctrine, or should the doctrine be kept as a sort of “safety valve” when justice arguably goes awry?
By the way, King also sued the City of Los Angeles over his beating, and in April 1994, a California jury awarded him $3.8 million in damages.
Sandy Davidson, Ph.D., J.D., teaches communications law at the MU School of Journalism. She is a curators’ distinguished teaching professor and the attorney for the Columbia Missourian.