Judge John G. Davies, an Olympic swimming gold medalist whose discipline, independence and Down Under drollery was credited with helping to prevent more riots in Los Angeles after he presided over the second trial of four officers in the Rodney King police brutality case, died on March 24 in Pasadena. He was 90.
The cause was cancer, his son, Jack, said.
Applying the same command and composure that swept him to a world record at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki when he was 20, the Australian-born Judge Davies presided over the 1993 federal civil rights trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King, a motorist whom they had seized after a 117-mile-an-hour-chase that began when he was driving erratically on March 3, 1991.
When the four were initially acquitted by an all-white state jury in 1992 despite an amateur videotape that vividly confirmed the violent beating of Mr. King, a black construction worker, Los Angeles erupted in rampages that left scores dead and a billion dollars in property damaged.
The officers were tried again before Judge Davies on civil rights charges in Federal District Court in Los Angeles before a racially mixed jury. Two of the officers were acquitted. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the two others faced up to 10 years in prison. But while Judge Davies described the videotape as “shocking, violent and painful,” he also cautioned that it was “partial, ambiguous and incomplete.” He said the evidence demonstrated that Mr. King had, in part, provoked the violence by fleeing from the police and resisting arrest while intoxicated.
He also said the officers had lost their jobs, suffered vilification as nationwide symbols of police abuse against black civilians and posed no further threat to society.
As a result, he defied the federal guidelines and sentenced the officers, Laurence M. Powell and Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, to 30 months imprisonment.
An appeals court ruled that Judge Davies had exceeded his authority, but in 1994 the United States Supreme Court declared that a trial judge’s decision was “due substantial deference” because it was “informed by its vantage point and day-to-day experience in criminal sentencing.”
The relatively lenient sentences were criticized by Mr. King’s supporters as unjust, but did not provoke riots, leading some, including a retired federal judge, to hail Judge Davies as “the judge who saved L.A.”
“It takes a lot of courage for a judge who sits and sees the facts up close through a microscope to do the right thing in the face of this kind of pressure,” Marvin L. Rudnick, a former federal prosecutor, told The New York Times when the sentences were handed down. “Judge Davies is that kind of judge.”
Appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Judge Davies delivered rulings in other pivotal cases during his tenure, from 1986 to 1998.
In 1991, he declared that an anti-obscenity clause in grants by the National Endowment for the Arts was unconstitutional because it amounted to an “obstacle in the path of the exercise of fundamental speech rights that the Constitution will not tolerate.”
The clause, which has since been removed, had been challenged by the Bella Lewitzky Dance Foundation in Los Angeles. The dance company manager signed an application form saying it had complied with the terms of the grant, but crossed out the anti-obscenity restriction.
In 1996, Judge Davies overturned the California conviction of Charles H. Keating Jr., the chief defendant in the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal, on the grounds that the state trial judge, Lance A. Ito, had given flawed instructions to the jury. Mr. Keating remained imprisoned on federal charges, which were also later overturned, but he admitted to wire and bankruptcy fraud in 1999 and was sentenced to time served.
In 1998, Judge Davies mediated a settlement under which Merrill Lynch & Company agreed to pay $400 million to Orange County, Calif., to settle claims that the Wall Street brokerage firm helped drive the affluent county into bankruptcy by giving it reckless investment advice. The county had filed a civil suit against the company, but the District Court’s rules required mediation before trial.
His legal precedents followed record-setting performances as a swimmer.
Training under Forbes Carlile in Australia and Matt Mann at the University of Michigan, he finished fourth in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1948 London Olympics.
Representing Australia again in 1952 in Helsinki, he slept 20 hours a day and practiced his experimental butterfly breaststroke for some three hours daily to defeat Bowen Stassforth of the United States and Herbert Klein of Germany for the gold medal. (Mr. Carlile would later write: “My experience with John Davies illustrates the principle that it is better, far better, to rest too much than to train too much and too hard in final preparation.”)
Using his butterfly breaststroke, he set an Olympic record in the 200-meter breaststroke at 2:34.4. (The event was divided into traditional breaststroke and butterfly for the Olympics after 1952.)
The 6-foot-4 champion was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1992.
John Griffith Davies was born on May 17, 1929, in Willoughby, a suburb of Sydney, in New South Wales, to Frederick Davies and Marie (O’Sullivan) Davies.
After participating in the London Olympics, he was recruited to Michigan where, after supporting himself by washing dishes, he graduated in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He earned his law degree from the University of California School of Law in 1959. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1960. He lived most recently in Pasadena.
In 1952, he married Marjorie M. Follinger. In addition to his son, she survives him, along with his daughter, Ann Davies, and three grandchildren.
Before being named to the bench, he was a litigator with the Los Angeles law firms of Hagenbaugh, Murphy & Davies and Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman.
Professor Frank Cotton, an expert on physiology who monitored the swimming event in Helsinki, recalled in Swimming World magazine that “Davies’s judgment was uncanny.” He added: “I’ve never seen any athlete show more constraint in swimming the type of race he thinks he can win.”
Judge Davies brought the same determination to his profession, as a litigator and a strict but compassionate stickler for courtroom protocol.
“A just result actually comes about from tugging and pulling on the issues by good lawyers,” he once told the magazine Verdict. “Good advocacy produces good results. Remember, civility and professionalism go hand-in-hand with good advocacy.”