Racially Charged L.A. Case Creeps Closer to a Finish

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THIS city edged closer to ending one of the most violent and racially turbulent periods in its history with the sentencing this week of a black man convicted of beating white truck driver Reginald Denny.

The city passed the latest legal and emotional threshold the way it has most others - with some controversy.

Some black community leaders see the maximum 10-year sentence imposed on Damian Williams, who was convicted in the attacks on Mr. Denny and other motorists at the outset of last year's riots, as too harsh.

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Coming after two white police officers were sentenced to 2 1/2 years for violating motorist Rodney King's civil rights in a now notorious 1991 beating, they believe the justice system is flawed.

``The sentence once again sends a message that African-Americans are held to a more stringent standard than others,'' Ken Collins of Brotherhood Crusade says.

Other blacks, however, viewed Mr. Williams's sentence as fair, given that he will likely be eligible for parole within four years. Prosecutors, too, were pleased, though they continue to lament that Williams wasn't convicted of more serious charges.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk said Williams deserved the harshest possible sentence for smashing a brick into Denny's skull and showing no remorse. He called it ``intolerable in this society to attack and maim people because of their race.''

Williams received eight years for the felony mayhem assault on Denny and six months each for four misdemeanor assaults. Another black defendant, Henry Watson, was given probation.

The attack on Denny, witnessed by millions on live television, came to symbolize the mayhem that reigned during the worst urban riots in the United States this century.

The unrest, which claimed 54 lives, broke out in April 1992 after the four police officers were acquitted on state charges in the Rodney King incident.

The divergent views on the outcome of the Williams trial, as of previous ones, is a reminder that the courtroom is not a neat forum for solving community problems - or meeting expectations.

``The court is not an instrument for rectifying 200 years of racial history,'' says Robert Pugsley, a professor at the Southwestern University School of Law.

Though police were on alert after the sentencing, the city was calm. Completion of the case winds down, but doesn't end, Los Angeles's legal ordeal. Williams is appealing his sentence, and another trial related to the rioting is scheduled for January.

Still, most agree that it's time for the nation's most ethnically diverse city to get on with healing, even if the obstacles remain formidable.

``Until we solve the core problems, we still stand a chance of the same thing happening again,'' says the Rev. Leonard Jackson of the First A.M.E. Church in South Central Los Angeles.

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