It's Summertime, and the Courts Are Jumping in the City of Angels

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR Californians, the dog days of August are bringing an unavoidable observation: This city and this state are awash in trials.

From the seedy to the significant, the papers are full of the daily, blow-by-blow details of several high-profile cases. From neo-Nazi skinheads accused of assassination plots against black leaders to a Hollywood madam, both arrested in sting operations; from the beating of a white trucker by young blacks to two white policemen sentenced for the beating of a black motorist. Each case is in a different phase, from arraignment and jury-selection to jury deliberation, sentencing, or appeal.

Gathered like metal filings around the separate but increasingly manifest poles of race and sex/money, the trials may say something specific about the preoccupations of culture here.

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"Los Angeles is currently the highest-profile city nationwide with respect to racially based murder cases," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law who studies ethical influences in litigation. "For now, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse are the crimes and defenses of the moment."

The exhaustive media coverage may mirror what editors think readers want to know, or the relative lack of other news, or perhaps the need to push newspapers during the dog days of August. But whether or not public attention is focused on the less important cases or the ones that could have broad import, the following is a wrap-up to help sort out key cases and issues.

* The Reginald Denny Case. The trial of two black defendants, accused of assaulting white trucker Reginald Denny during the L.A. riots of 1992, is expected to begin Thursday. Extended jockeying by defense and prosecuting attorneys has resulted in an ethnically diverse jury of five Anglos, three African-Americans, three Latinos, and one Asian-American.

Because the beating of Mr. Denny was captured by a news crew in a helicopter and played endlessly in coverage of the riots - and because he is white, while the defendants are black - the trial is being touted as a key test of judicial fairness in the mold of the Rodney King case.

Several black groups are questioning whether the courts can produce justice for blacks that is equal to that for whites. Angered by the unexpectedly mild sentences handed down this month to the white police officers found guilty of civil rights violations in beating King, several groups are demanding equal lenience for the black defendants.

But legal experts and even some black leaders are saying the case is different in several crucial respects. "At least initially, the white officers were acting lawfully in pursuing King," notes Pugsley. "The assaulters of Reginald Denny were acting illegally from the first second, without justification." As evidence that the black community is divided over the Denny case, Pugsley notes that black civil rights attorney Johnnie Cochran, who has successfully represented blacks in several cases of police ab use, is representing Denny in a civil action against the city.

* The Rodney King Case. Two separate appeals are in the offing. Federal prosecutors are considering appeal of the two-and-a-half year sentences for Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell as too lenient. Defense attorneys have indicated they will appeal the May convictions of Mr. Koon and Mr. Powell, based on procedural questions over the use of a videotaped testimony culled from a previous trial.

The two are set to begin their sentences in minimum-security prisons beginning Sept. 27.

* Hate Crimes. The uncovered alleged plot here by neo-Nazi and skinhead groups to assassinate several black leaders and bomb a local church has reopened old wounds and a national dialogue on the motivations for hate crime. Though several were arrested, only one has been indicted - on allegations of trafficking and illegal possession of weapons.

* Sexual abuse/molestation. Lawyers and local officials say two cases involving sexual molestation reflect a growing distaste for such conduct. The San Francisco case of Ellie Nesler has found Ms. Nesler guilty of manslaughter in killing the man accused of molesting her son, and awaits a verdict on her plea of insanity. Also, two brothers accused of shooting their parents for millions in inheritance are using the claim of sexual abuse by their parents as just cause for the murders.

* Though the case of Heidi Fleiss is making national headlines for the possible expose of key members of the entertainment industry here who may have used prostitution services, legal insiders here say the story's significance lies in uncovering drug- and money-laundering related offenses.

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