WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department, escalating its probe of the police beating in Los Angeles, yesterday began using a federal grand jury in Los Angeles to gather evidence of possible federal crimes in the pummeling of motorist Rodney King.
Less than two full days after the department reopened a shelved probe of the King incident, Attorney General William P. Barr took the unusual step of revealing that "federal grand jury activity is under way in Los Angeles."
He said the grand jury was issuing subpoenas to get evidence -- presumably summoning witnesses and demanding documents. He also said, without elaboration, that "evidence is being reviewed."
Grand juries have sweeping authority to demand evidence, without any need to show that the data they want necessarily relate to any crime that might have been committed. Their subpoena power is considered to be far wider than that of federal prosecutors acting on their own.
The government's newly intensified probe of the beating incident apparently reaches beyond the four police officers directly involved in the clubbing of Mr. King.
Perhaps 17 other officers, who witnessed the beating but did not intervene, may be at risk of prosecution for alleged violations of Mr. King's civil rights, according to a federal law enforcement official who asked not to be identified. Asked expressly whether the probe was aimed only at the four, that official said pointedly: "We're looking at the entire incident of the beating of Rodney King."
The department is not currently looking into anything other than the events that happened the night of the beating. Thus, its probe does not reach the conduct of the state trial of the four police officers.
It was very unusual for the attorney general to make public yesterday that he had taken the case to a federal grand jury -- apparently, a grand jury that was already in session, not a newly assembled panel.
Ordinarily, all aspects of what a grand jury does, including the mere fact that it is conducting an investigation, are kept secret. A federal court rule puts a cloak of secrecy over all grand juries, and federal prosecutors almost never say anything publicly about a grand jury probe.
Grand juries are arms of the federal courts -- not a part of the Justice Department or the executive branch -- and it is considered at least a breach of legal etiquette for prosecutors to talk about those proceedings.
At a news conference Thursday, Mr. Barr gave the usual reply when asked about the details of the probe that he had restarted, saying that he would not comment on an "ongoing criminal investigation." But he went well beyond that yesterday, directly mentioning the grand jury's work.
Mr. Barr's brief new statement gave no indication of why he had decided to reveal the use of this powerful investigative technique. But earlier in the day, civil rights leaders in a meeting at the White House had urged President Bush to take the Rodney King beating incident to a grand jury.
The attorney general stressed that the investigation is in "high gear" and that he was staying "in steady contact" with the department's No. 3-ranking official, Associate Attorney General Wayne Budd, who was sent to Los Angeles the day before to coordinate the probe.
The probe is likely to be fairly complex, with 17 other police officers also the targets of the grand jury investigation. The grand jury also might have some difficulty getting evidence that could be used in prosecuting other officers because a number of them had cooperated in the California investigation after being promised legal immunity.
The Justice Department probe centers on the amount of force used by police in subduing Mr. King after chasing and stopping his speeding car. The department wants to determine whether the force was "excessive" and, thus, violated Mr. King's right not to be subjected to "unreasonable" physical force by police.
The department claims considerable and steadily rising success over the past several years in prosecuting police for violating the civil rights of individuals they arrest. Since the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 1988, the government has pursued 100 separate cases involving possible police brutality; those cases together included 187 individual police officers.
In the first of those four years, it got convictions or guilty pleas in 64.3 percent of the cases; the second year, 73 percent; the third, 77.8 percent, and the fourth, 80 percent. Those found or pleading guilty totaled 45 officers the first year, 33 the second, 14 the third and 48 the fourth.