`Most Unusual' Denny Case Tests Limits of Jury System

LEGAL experts watching deliberations in the Reginald Denny beating trial say the case spotlights several weaknesses in the American justice system in general and the jury process in particular.

``This case has turned into one of the most procedurally unusual cases in California criminal-justice history,'' says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles who has been watching the trial closely since its inception. ``It demonstrates the difficulty for this and any subsequent case with political and racial overtones of selecting and supervising a jury in a smooth and efficient manner.''

The case went through several fits and starts when Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk removed two jurors - one black woman (Juror 373) and one white man (Juror 152) - early in the week. After replacing them with two alternates chosen at random from a reserve pool, Judge Ouderkirk asked the reconstituted jury to begin week-old deliberations anew.

By midweek, the case stalled again when the judge was asked to rule on the removal of still another juror, and to release transcripts of a closed hearing at which it was decided to dismiss Juror 373. Others on the panel had complained that the woman was not up to the task of serving on the jury. The judge had already replaced two jurors for health reasons before deliberations even began.

``High-profile cases like this are always very difficult for jurors,'' says Myrna Raeder, vice chairwoman of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Committee on Federal Rules of Procedure and Evidence. ``Feelings of enormous responsibility often engineer great animosity and stress within the jury room. I think we are seeing that here.''

The two black defendants, Damian Williams and Henry Watson, are charged with attempted murder of a white truck driver, Reginald Denny. Mr. Denny was beaten in the opening moments of riots that broke out here last year after four white policemen were acquitted of state charges in the beating of a black motorist, Rodney King.

Because so many jurors have been replaced with alternates, several other experts have speculated that solid grounds for a reversal of the eventual verdict exist in the appeal process.

HE California penal code is vague in delineating how judges may replace deliberating jurors, listing only illness, death, or ``upon other good cause shown to the court.''

Ouderkirk's decision to release transcripts of the juror hearings are seen as the judge's own attempt to end speculation as to his reasoning.

Still other observers say replacement jurors may forever taint the eventual verdict in the mind of the public.

``Once you bump a juror and are asked to go back to the beginning after a lengthy discussion ... you have a different dynamic,'' Ms. Raeder says.

``Some [jurors] are talked out, others glazed over. There is a real practical question over whether it's even possible to go back to the beginning,'' she added.

Dr. Pugley also notes that the tangled maneuverings in the case will increase public skepticism about the jury process and the proper role of courts in solving social ills.

``I think this will deter many people from lending themselves to their civic duty of jury service,'' he says.

Holding that the trial is an outgrowth of animosities that have festered in the city since before the beating of Mr. King, he adds, ``The point is, the courtroom is not meant to solve the kinds of antagonisms that lie behind this case. This reaffirms the inadequacy of courts in doing that.''

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