King Verdict May Signal Police to Avoid Excessive Force
THE battered American justice system has won a qualified vote of confidence in the wake of split verdicts from this country's most watched trial in decades. By finding two of four Los Angeles police officers guilty as charged in the videotaped beating of Rodney King - and two others not guilty - a federal jury reached a thorny compromise that eluded state jurors one year ago. The state jury's acquittal of the officers sparked riots that left 53 people dead and caused more than $1 billion in property dama ge.
Many in Los Angeles said that the federal jury's decision reaffirmed their faith in the United States legal system. "By weighing each count on its merit in a complex case like this, the jury showed our legal system can deal with big issues with subtlety and fairness under great pressure," says Myrna Raeder, chairwoman of the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Committee on Federal Rules of Procedure and Evidence.
"Even the most cynical of judgments recognizes that at least partial justice has been served," agrees Prof. Robert Pugsley of the Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles.
The verdict also delivers a strong message to police and to other courts. "The case sends a signal to police everywhere that are not being sensitive to their relationships with the minority community," Ms. Raeder says. "It bodes strongly for sweeping changes both in training and policy of police forces across the country."
After six weeks of testimony and 40 hours of deliberation, the federal jury of nine whites, two blacks, and one Hispanic returned its verdict to federal Judge John Davies Friday. With hundreds of radio and TV stations tuned in live, the verdicts were unsealed Saturday morning and relayed by phone from a sixth- floor pressroom.
Sgt. Stacey Koon, supervisor at the March 3, 1991, beating scene, was convicted of allowing Mr. King's civil rights to be violated. Officer Laurence Powell, who was videotaped delivering more than 50 blows with a baton to King, was convicted of willfully violating King's rights. Officer Theodore Briseno and former Officer Timothy Wind were acquitted of all charges.
Sentencing for Messrs. Powell and Koon was set for Aug. 4. They face up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, but analysts predict that Koon will get two to four years in prison, while Powell will get three to five years. They will most likely serve their sentences in a minimum-security prison.
Trial watchers said the convictions turned on several key points that distinguished the civil rights trial from the previous criminal case:
* King did not testify in the first trial. After the second trial, an unidentified juror told KABC-TV that the jury considered King's testimony crucial because it showed him as a human being. "Defense attorneys could not provoke him," says Dan Caplis, a trial attorney. "So although they showed inconsistencies in his story, his reasoned presence was more important than what he had to say."
* The federal jury seemed to be more convinced by the famous videotape of King's beating than the state jury had been. A male juror, interviewed on KNBC-TV, said the 12 jurors threw out the conflicting testimony of two police experts and instead relied on the videotape. "I think the tape basically speaks for itself - that's basically what convicted them," the juror said, according to the Associated Press.
* California Highway Patrol Officer Melanie Singer, who had been a star prosecution witness in state court, was called as a defense witness in the federal trial. Two days of tearful testimony backfired on defense attorneys when Ms. Singer said she would remember the horror of the beating until the day she died.
* In the state trial, Officer Briseno testified against his codefendants, repeating several times, "I couldn't understand what was going on out there." In the federal trial, defense contentions that the four officers acted in unison were undermined when Judge Davies allowed jurors to view videotaped excerpts from the state testimony. "By showing that at least one officer questioned the entire beating, the Briseno tape was very potent in poking holes in the defense," Professor Pugsley says.
* A final strategy that worked for state trial jurors but boomeranged in federal court, observers say, was the stoic demeanor of Sergeant Koon. In both trials, Koon testified that everything the officers did was in L.A. police department policy and training. The first jury bought the argument; the second didn't.
Defense attorneys Ira Salzman and Michael Stone - representing Koon and Powell, respectively - announced that they will appeal the verdicts. One clear basis for such appeals, say several analysts, is the question of whether the use of the Briseno tape was proper. Since the tape was used in a rebuttal phase of trial procedure, there was no way for defense attorneys to call Briseno to the stand for further explanation.
Another basis for appeal, Mr. Salzman says, will be different standards of "intent" as defined by the Constitution. "Overall it was a fair trial," Salzman said, "but I believe my client [Koon] was indicted under the 14th Amendment but tried under the [standards set by] the Fourth Amendment. This is solid ground to be looked into for appeal."