U.S. District Court Judge Rose Sterling yesterday denied a motion by the Justice Department challenging the legality of probated sentences he gave three former Houston police officers convicted of felony civil rights violations.

The motion, which the government filed April 5, stemmed from the sentences received March 28 by ex-officers Terry Denson, Stephen Orlando and Joseph Janish, for their role in the death of Joe Campos Torres Jr., an prisoner who drowned while in their custody last year.

Sterling sentenced them to 10-year supsended terms, reduced to five years of supervised probation, for conspiring to violate Torres' civil rights, a felony that resulted in Torres' death.

The three also received one year in prison on a misdemeanor count of violating Torres' civil rights by beating him. It was the maximum sentence permissible on the misdemeanor charge.

Sterling termed "entirely unprecedent" the government's motion, which contended that probated sentences are illegal in felony cases where the range of punishment runs to life imprsionment.

He said federal judges last year granted probation in 43 murder, rape and kidnap cases, all crimes for which life imprisonment may be imposed.

"I don't have any answer on that yet," said C. Brian McDonald, a special assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the Torres case, when asked if the government will appeal Sterling's order.

The government had called the probated sentences "entirely inappropriate" and had contended in its motion that "probation in this case will cause citizens of all races and backgrounds to believe the sentence was a result of the continuing inequality of treatment accoreded to minorities." Torres was a Mexican-American.

The former officers were indicted on the federal civil rights charges last November after a state District Court jury sentenced Denson and Orlando each to one year's probation for criminally negligent homicide in the Torres' case.

The state sentences led to protests by Mexican American civil rights leaderican civil rights leaders, as did the federal sentences the ex-officers subsequently received.

The League of United Latin-American Citizens (LULAC) has urged that a three-judge panel be convened to censure Sterling for his sentencing in the case.

In explaining his decision to grant probation, Sterling had said "this is a situation offense which these defendants will never encounter again."

"They will never again be police officers and a long period of confinement would have little pact on the Houston Police Department, where I conceive the heart of the problem to lie."

The U.S. attorney's office here is also presenting evidence to a federal grand jury investigating two more cases of alleged civil rights violations by Houston police officers. Both cases involve police allegedly planting guns on suspects they have shot, to provide justification for the officers' use of deadly force.