LOS ANGELES, May 2, 1992 (UPI) - A federal grand jury has launched an investigation to determine whether four police officers acquitted in the Rodney King beating case should be charged with civil rights violations.
''This investigation is of the highest priority and will be vigorously pursued,'' said Associate Attorney General Wayne Budd at a news conference Friday in downtown Los Angeles. Budd, who is supervising the case, did not issue a target date for completing the investigation and took no questions.
The grand jury has already issued a subpoena for evidence and its findings could lead to convictions on civil rights violations for the four white officers who were acquitted Wednesday on state charges in connection with the beating of the black motorist.
Lourdes Baird, the U.S. Attorney for the Central California district, had announced Wednesday, following the acquittal, that the federal civil-rights investigation of the March 1991 beating was continuing after being held in abeyance until the conclusion of the state case.
Federal investigations routinely are turned over to grand juries for decisions on whether to prosecute, but with Friday's announcement coming just two days after the acquittal, there is a strong indication that prosecutors want to resolve the case with significant speed.
Baird said the acquittal on the state charges does not prevent the officers being prosecuted on federal charges. ''The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to federal prosecutions of cases with not guilty verdicts in state courts,'' she said.
Attorney General William Barr had announced Thursday that the possibility of federal indictments existed, then confirmed it in a statement on Friday.
''Federal grand jury activity is underway today in Los Angeles, '' Barr said. ''Subpoenas have been served. Evidence is being reviewed.''
''The federal civil rights investigation was put into high gear within an hour of the verdicts and is being aggressively pursued,'' said Barr.
The announcement came as the death toll in the three-day rampage of devastating fires, riots and looting in Los Angeles sparked by the verdicts reached 40 and the damage estimate topped $550 million.
Baird said at the news conference that the statute commonly used in the prosecution of civil rights cases covers deprivations of civil rights under color of authority, which includes the intentional use of unreasonable or excessive force by a law enforcement officer.
Violations of that section of the federal law that result in a bodily injury are punishable by 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Another section used by prosecutors in such cases covers conspiracies related to a deprivation of civil rights and carry the same penalty.
The jurors in the state case were unable to reach agreement on one count, the charge of excessive force under color of authority against Officer Laurence Powell, 29, the training officer who on a videotape of the March 3, 1991, incident was seen repeatedly clubbed King with his steel baton.
When jurors informed Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg they were deadlocked with four voting for conviction and eight for acquittal, the judge declared a mistrial on that count. District Attorney Ira Reiner said no decision had been made yet as to whether Powell would be retried on that charge and a hearing was scheduled for May 15 in Los Angeles.
Powell and his co-defendants -- Sgt. Stacey Koon, 41, and officers Theodore Briseno, 39, and Timothy Wind, 32 -- were cleared of the remaining charges in the five-count grand jury indictment. They had been charged in the seven-week trial with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive force under color of authority.
In addition, Koon, the ranking officer at the scene, and Powell, were charged with filing false police reports, allegedly for covering up the extent of the injuries King sustained. Koon also was charged with being an accessory after the fact to the assault and excessive force.
Federal authorities said Friday that the federal charges that could be used are similar in some respect to the state charges relating to use of excessive force.