L.A. Police Trial Underway With No Cameras Allowed

While nation focuses on Rodney King case, reporters say the public is missing subtleties - a reporter's notebook

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER seven trips through two metal detectors - having to twice remove my watch, ring, belt, and shoes (x-rays finally showed paper-thin, metal arch supports) - I stepped quietly into the most closely followed trial in America.

"Extra security for Rodney King?" I whispered to a burly federal marshal. Four hours earlier the entire building next door had been evacuated for what turned out to be something the size of a firecracker. The marshal's steely glare answered my query.

Dumb question.

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The eighth-floor federal courtroom is absolutely hushed, darkened with walnut walls, and tiny - 80 seats, tops.

In the front of just four rows of spectator seats sit the four accused Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, wearing here-we-go-again looks as they face federal civil rights charges in the beating of Rodney King. The trial started Feb. 25.

Presiding Judge John Davies has been lambasted in the local press for feeding the black community's suspicions by choosing this small courtroom, with only 15 seats open to the public.

The previous state trial in nearby Simi Valley, in which the four officers were acquitted on criminal charges, was televised. Now, even with the entire US judicial system on trial by many accounts, not so much as a tape recorder is allowed inside this building because it is a federal trial.

Broadcast news organizations are having to chase principal participants through a nearby parking garage or to station staff members with microphones in a central courtyard to be ready for those exiting.

To get live pictures to accompany their nightly news reports, TV stations are having to settle for talking heads of the defense attorneys, who willingly step forward at each break. Since prosecutors are not speaking to the news media, national and local coverage gets skewed to favor the defense, several media analysts have said.

Two floors down from the court, a group of reporters sit in a small press room where they are tuned into the proceedings on a low-quality sound system. Naturally, they are grousing about this setup.

"It's like trying to cover something with one eye closed and two hands tied behind your back," complains Dan Blackburn, a CNN correspondent.

"For broadcasters, this is the equivalent of a newspaper that can't use ink," he says.

"It's hopeless," says Michael Singer, a CBS producer who had his pick of gavel-to-gavel footage during the officers' first trial. "This is the most important story in urban America and the public is not seeing it."

The word "subtlety" comes up in interviews with reporters who are trying to explain what their viewers and readers are missing in coverage of the trial.

"You simply have to see how a witness is treated by the defense and prosecution and how the jury reacts," says Sally Ann Stewart, who will be filing daily stories for USA Today until the trial ends.

Ms. Stewart, who covered portions of the earlier trial, says, "Everyone thought that the videotape made this an open and shut case. If they could see what is happening here, they would know why it is so much more complex than that."

During my turn to use one of only 40 press seats in the courtroom, I got an idea of what she means.

One witness, Benjamin Avila, was being interviewed through a Spanish interpreter - an exhaustive and time-consuming process. After he gave fairly straightforward testimony to prosecutors and then demonstrated how one officer had kicked Rodney King, the defense attorneys took over.

"You used your left foot here in this demonstration," said laywer Paul Di Pasquale. "On that night nearly two years ago [Mar. 3, 1991], are you absolutely sure the officer kicked Mr. King with his left foot?"

After the attorney's questions, the jurors responded to Mr. Avila's testimony with rolling of eyes and body language that generally reflected disbelief and disgust. That did not show up in much of the news coverage, however. It could only be relayed by first seeing it.

There are other things that need to be seen to be understood:

* How and why the prosecutors elicited information from one of their own witnesses and then turned hostile and tried to impeach the witness.

* How attorneys from both sides plant hidden premises in their lines of questioning that help create a lens through which subsequent answers are filtered.

* The ease with which a credible witness can be worn down with rapid-fire questioning.

There is another side to the subtlety issue. The jury, although more ethnically representative than the one in Simi Valley, is made up of ordinary citizens who are not any more savvy about the intricacies and chicanery inherent in court proceedings than is the general public.

And since the general public is being treated to the daily interpretations of events by publicity-hungry defense attorneys, and the sequestered jury is not, the possibility of arriving at two different conclusions is heightened.

"If there is a subtlety in the courtroom we should know about, the defense lets us know like a sledgehammer," says CNN's Mr. Blackburn.

CBS' Mr. Singer says that, if the public could see what is going on, it would have more respect for the "serious, deliberative" nature of the proceedings, which would "demystify" the trial.

"Why are there no cameras allowed at federal trials?" he asks.

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