SOCIETY menace or victim?
That is the question that jurors will confront as they consider Rodney King's testimony this week in the trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged with beating the black motorist. More important than the substance of Mr. King's testimony, legal experts say, will be the impression that he leaves with the jury.
The jury's reaction to such intangibles as King's demeanor, cooperativeness, and sincerity will not be known until the federal trial ends in three to six weeks. But a few things are already clear after King's testimony on March 9 and 10 in a federal courtroom here. Defense attorneys did manage to establish some inconsistencies in his testimony, but legal analysts say that prosecutors scored a substantial victory by dispelling the earlier impression that King was a "superhuman monster" who threatened poli ce officers.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, King scored an 11 for credibility," says Dan Caplis, a trial attorney and legal analyst who has followed the trial closely. "King was in control, respectful, believable. I've never seen a witness coached as well who didn't seem canned or forced. His stumbling and pausing actually made him more real."
King's testimony in the federal trial of the L.A. police officers is the chief feature that distinguishes the proceedings from the first trial in Simi Valley, which ended in the acquittal of the officers. That acquittal triggered the worst riots in modern United States history. This time, federal prosecutors, who are trying the L.A. police officers on civil-rights charges, have decided to put King himself on the stand to talk about the beating he sustained on March 3, 1991, at the hands of the police of ficers.
"Putting Rodney King on the stand has been clearly a gamble, but one the prosecution had to take," says Myrna Raeder, chairman of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Committee on Federal Rules of Procedure and Evidence. "The point is whether or not the jury will turn out to find him an individual worthy of sympathy, a human being that continues to be affected by what happened."
By putting a human face on a tragedy that has been reduced to shadows on a videotape, prosecutors hoped to personalize the effects of brutality that have remained abstract. They are trying to distance themselves from the first trial's failed tactics and criticism that failure resulted from keeping King off the stand.
After King's testimony, even defense attorneys said the idea paid off. "Has King's appearance done damage to the officers' defense? Absolutely," defense attorney Michael Stone said after the first round of questioning and cross-examination. Mr. Stone said King "looked wonderful, trim, and fit" and was "polite and gentlemanly on the stand."
But he also claimed that King had been "coached very eloquently through a script" by prosecutors. He promised to show that inconsistencies in the testimony compared to statements given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), police, and others will undermine King's version of the beating.
One inconsistency, Stone says, is King's claim that the officers taunted him with the words "nigga" or "nigger." In some previous testimony to police, the FBI, and others, no such claim emerged, Stone says. "All of a sudden he brought up these racial epithets, which really took us all by surprise." In testimony, King was vague, saying he was too dazed to know if they said "killer," or "nigger."
"Are you absolutely sure you heard the police taunting you, using the word `nigger?' " defense attorney Ira Salzman asked. "No, I am not sure," King replied.
Defense attorneys also said they would continue to underline the fact that King appears to weigh far less now than he did at the time of the incident. In testimony, King claimed to weigh 211 pounds compared with 225 pounds on March 3, 1991. Such a change would emphasize that King might have appeared more threatening to officers.
Stone says that defense attorneys may also try to introduce audio tape of the beating that has been altered to remove sounds of helicopter blades whirring overhead. The tape, if admissible, will exonerate the officers of using the word "nigger," he said.
The officers' use of electric stun guns received new currency in King's testimony, however.
"It felt like my blood was boiling ... that's what I felt," King said. He also recounted having recurring nightmares since the incident took place.
In recounting the beating from the witness stand, King spoke repeatedly of attempts by officers to break his wrists, demonstrating with his hands and yelling in mock pain, "aaah, AAAH."
Peter Arenella, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, says the testimony is a turning point for the prosecution because it sets the trial back on a premise they have to prove from the outset - "not whether King or the officers is more criminal than the others, but whether the policeman's conduct constituted excessive force."
"In the previous trial, prosecution suffered by not bringing a real live human being to the stand," Mr. Arenella says. "Now they are able to help the jury realize this is an event that has had lasting emotional and physical trauma."