Anger over King case sentences

MOST Americans looked forward to the sentencing of two Los Angeles police officers involved in the Rodney King beating as the final chapter of an ugly scandal. But yesterday it became evident that the book is not completely closed.

Outraged black leaders made clear they felt the officers' 30-month sentences serve only to emphasise a key issue at the core of the King affair: that the US judicial system appears to be prejudiced in favour of whites.

Although peaceful, Los Angeles reverberated with condemnation from those angered by the startling leniency of US District Judge John Davies, who could have sent the officers to prison for up to 10 years and fined them up to dollars 250,000 ( pounds 167,700) for violating Mr King's civil rights.

Maxine Waters, a black congresswoman whose constituency lies in the heart of riot-torn south-central Los Angeles, described the outcome as a 'kiss on the wrist'. Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, said the sentences displayed a double standard of justice, 'a wanton disparity, discrimination and inequity based on race'.

Erik Rasmussen, a juror who helped convict the officers, also spoke out - saying the officers deserved between five and seven years. Even a subdued Rodney King, who is bringing a dollars 50m lawsuit against the city authorities, made a rare television appearance, condemning the punishments as inadequate. If he had been in the dock, he remarked sourly, he would probably have got 'ten or 15 years'.

The anger caused by the light prison terms, which were lower than federal sentencing guidelines, has been strongly underscored by comments by Judge Davies which were highly sympathetic to the defendants. Far from portraying them as brutal, he spoke warmly of the two men, paying tribute to their police records and family life.

The judge, a moderate conservative, said Rodney King 'constituted a threat' and bore much of the blame for the beating he received because he 'continued to disobey, even when struck by repeated blows'.

More importantly, he said the officers acted legally during almost all of the beating as King was resisting arrest, and were punished only for six of the dozens of blows he received. For many in a community that has watched the notorious amateur videotape of the beating many hundreds of times, such a conclusion caused amazement and dismay - not least because it suggests that it is acceptable for policemen to use violence against an unarmed but unco-operative suspect. Mr King suffered severe injuries, including a shattered cheekbone and broken leg after more than 50 blows from police batons and boots.

The judge's conclusions ensure that the controversy is likely to rumble on, and will be seen by many as an unresolved and nasty blemish in US race relations. The US Attorney's office in Los Angeles yesterday said it would consult the Attorney General, Janet Reno, over whether to appeal against the sentences. Federal prosecutors had wanted near-maximum sentences - 7-9 years for Laurence Powell, and 9-10 years for Stacey Koon, who directed the beating. Government sources last night indicated that an appeal was likely.

The light sentences mean that the case could have an explosive bearing on the trial of two young black men accused of beating the truck driver Reginald Denny. That attack is widely portrayed as a parallel to the King case. The black community will be watching to see if the courts are as lenient to Mr Denny's assailants as they were to Mr King's.