WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has reopened a federal probe of the Los Angeles police beating of motorist Rodney King, vowing yesterday to decide promptly whether the four officers should be prosecuted for civil rights crimes.
The U.S. investigation, an apparently intensified version of a preliminary one by the FBI last year, appeared likely to focus more on the four Los Angeles policemen's conduct during the actual beating, and less on the state case that led a jury in California to find them not guilty of all but one charge Wednesday.
Attorney General William P. Barr told reporters here that the jury's verdicts "are not the end of this process."
He vowed a "vigorous" federal civil rights investigation of the officers' conduct and told his aides to complete it "as quickly as possible." He said he would not give a specific timetable, but his obvious attempt to create an air of urgency tended to indicate that charges -- if any are to be filed -- could be leveled in a matter of weeks, at the most.
The attorney general's actions were confined to ordering and speeding up a renewed inquiry. The preliminary probe that the FBI conducted last year was put on hold while the state of California went ahead with its charges.
No federal criminal charges have been prepared yet, and conceivably might never be. Mr. Barr would not forecast the outcome of his department's investigation.
A leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit, denounced the renewed investigation, saying that what was needed was not more study; "the action to take is to announce there will be a federal trial" for what the lawmaker called "a modern-day lynching," he said.
For more than a year, Mr. Conyers and the Justice Department have been feuding over whether the department was doing anything of consequence on police brutality in cases like Mr. King's.
A trial on federal charges, like the one in the California state court, would be likely to be a politically and racially charged event. But a federal trial would not be likely to occur for many months -- perhaps not until after election day in November -- if defense lawyers engage in extensive pre-trial maneuvering.
It was not immediately clear how sweeping the federal investigation would be. The Justice Department appears to have two options:
* It could look at every aspect of the California case -- the decision to prosecute the four policemen, the choice of charges, the choice of witnesses, the selection of a site for the trial, and the actual conduct of the trial, including the kinds of evidence the jury got to review.
* Or, it could focus very closely upon the actual beating itself, and what the four officers did that night after they chased and stopped Mr. King's speeding car, and then thrashed him with nightsticks while he was on the ground.
At one point during Mr. Barr's press conference, he said the probe would cover "the entire proceedings of the case that's just gone forward." That appeared to be a suggestion that the first option would be taken.
But the remainder of Mr. Barr's comments to reporters, and details supplied later by a federal law enforcement official who FTC asked not to be identified, indicated that the department was focusing upon the actions of the four police officers in striking Mr. King repeatedly during his arrest.
If that is where the investigation is leading, the federal probe would appear to be not much more than a second look at the beating incident itself, and whether that involved, as Mr. Barr put it, "the intentional infliction of excessive force."
Clearly, an inquiry limited to that would take a good deal less time than a sweeping probe of the entire case in California.
Under the Constitution and federal civil rights law, Mr. King's rights were not violated by the not guilty verdicts.
But, officials stressed, he does have a constitutional right not to be subdued by police using "excessive" force. That is a constitutional right, spelled out by the Supreme Court three years ago. Police officers may be prosecuted under two post-Civil War laws for using violence in a way that violates that right.
Attorney General Barr said that the testimony and evidence in the state trial would be "reviewed" in the civil rights inquiry. He did not discuss specific evidence, such as the videotape that a nearby amateur cameraman made of the beating.
The videotape was a central piece of evidence in the state case, and might be in the federal investigation.
The fact that the officers had won on all but one charge in the state trial does not mean that the federal government must avoid its own prosecution for the same conduct.
Mr. Barr said that the Justice Department would feel free to go ahead with a federal prosecution if it became convinced that the federal government's interests in Mr. King's civil rights were not protected adequately by the state trial.
One theory of a possible federal prosecution, as briefly outlined by Mr. Barr and as discussed more fully by a federal law enforcement official here who asked not to be identified, would be this:
* Under the 1989 Supreme Court ruling upon which officials are relying, it is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment for police making an arrest to use more force than a "reasonable" person would think was necessary, considering all the circumstances.
* Two 1870 civil rights laws protect that right from being violated by police officers while on duty, or by anyone who engages in a conspiracy to deprive an individual of that right.
* If the reopened investigation justifies it, the four officers could be prosecuted on a theory that they intended to use the kind of force that would be enough to violate the Fourth Amendment right.
* There need not be any proof that the officers intended to hurt Rodney King; the only proof needed would be that they intended use "unreasonable and unnecessary force," knowing that Mr. King's rights would be violated. If the prosecutors did prove that Mr. King was injured bodily, the officers could be sentenced to longer prison terms.
* A jury would have to be convinced, "beyond a reasonable doubt," that the policemen did intend to deprive Mr. King of his rights. Legal experts say that that could be a difficult matter of proof, since the officers would have many legal defenses -- including the claim that they thought they were using only the force needed to subdue Mr. King, a claim that appeared to have succeeded with the California jury.
Ever since the videotape of the King beating was released last year, the Justice Department has been immersed in controversy over what it was doing about possible civil rights charges growing out of alleged police brutality in Los Angeles.
With considerable fanfare, the department had announced a sweeping review of all its police brutality cases, to determine if it had been doing enough or should do more. But that study has never been released and may not yet even be completed, department officials said yesterday.
The Justice Department put its highest-ranking black official, Associate Attorney General Wayne Budd, in overall charge of the renewed investigation.