The Denny Case

AS the trial for two defendants charged with brutally assaulting truck driver Reginald Denny proceeds in Los Angeles, passions are rising, there and elsewhere, particularly among black youth. The assault was one of the most shocking images witnessed by the nation on April 29, 1992, as three days of rioting commenced in South-Central Los Angeles after a not-guilty verdict was handed down to police officers charged with beating Rodney King.

Because of special circumstances bringing the King and Denny cases to trial - both crimes were caught randomly on videotape - almost everyone with eyes to see has passed some kind of judgment. The Denny case flows from the King incident, a powerful symbol of continued racial bigotry and police brutality in America - and the initial King beating verdict, which for many symbolized bias in the system of justice. The sentences given in July to two policemen convicted in federal court of beating Rodney King, two and a half years in prison, are viewed in some quarters as too light, adding to frustration.

The Rodney King incident implied that more injustice is occurring in America than many realize. This must be understood and dealt with. Yet in a country based on both the intention of racial equality and the rule of law, however imperfectly practiced, justice must not become a matter of mob rule. In the court of public opinion, Denny can't be taken lightly by Americans of any race. It has within it seeds of further racial strife.

There is danger in some rhetoric surrounding the Denny case. Many on the street and many organizing protests in Los Angeles have already decided that the two defendants, Damian Monroe Williams and Henry Keith Watson, should go free. Their argument, a slippery slope, is that the existence of general racial injustice in America ought to "be enough" to let these men free, whether they are guilty or not. If Mr. Williams and Mr. Watson are convicted, more rioting and violence is promised. Local black leaders say the outcome of the case will test whether America is racist and its court system biased. As a spokesman stated, 56 blows on Rodney King show "more criminal intent than throwing an object that might have been a brick," Williams's alleged crime against Denny.

At the most basic level of criminal law, the incidents are separate. Mr. King was beaten by batons after a dangerous high-speed chase by police, and after an initial attempt to resist arrest. Mr. Denny was pulled randomly from his truck on a public road and was nearly killed by lethal blows to the head.

Violence cannot excuse violence. The Denny case, and verdict, may be used to exploit a separate agenda. It should be an attempt to uphold law.

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