THE criminal courtroom has never been a very clean forum for solving deeply entrenched community problems - or meeting its expectations.
Such is the case with the Reginald Denny beating trial that reached its denouement in a hushed courtroom here this week.
As in the federal trial of four police officers that preceded it, the Denny case has put the city through high-intensity weeks of controversy, emotion, and bizarre twists - resulting, in the end, in mixed reviews over whether justice was served.
The initial acquittals on most of the severe charges against two black men accused of beating a white truck driver pleased many in the black community but angered some whites.
The result has been a repeat of on-camera spin-doctoring that followed the Rodney King beating trial finale in April. Comments ranged from former Police Chief Daryl Gates (``I'm outraged'') to Rev. Cecil Murray of the First A.M.E. church (``Justice has been served'').
``There are those who believe the jury system is a wonderful way to solve community problems,'' says Stanley Goldman, law professor at Loyola Marymount University. ``This trial proved why that's not a good idea.''
Because no less than five jurors were replaced over the course of the trial for reasons of stress, health, and incompetence, the Denny case has been called one of the most unusual and unprecedented cases in Calfornia criminal history. Though yet to be completed - at press time two counts were still outstanding and sentencing remains - it has left many in the minority community feeling that justice can prevail for people of color.
``This is a new day for the city of Los Angeles,'' says Mark Whitlock executive director of L.A. Renaissance, a grass-roots organization for African-American men. His remarks were echoed by several other black leaders. ``This changes the outlook that African-Americans have for the criminal system that has tended to work against us instead of for us,'' Mr. Whitlock adds.
The remarks came after defendants Damian Williams and Henry Watson were acquitted by a multiracial jury on most of 12 counts charged against them in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. During the early minutes of the rioting, Mr. Denny was pulled from his truck at the intersection of Florence and Normandie and beaten bloody in an attack captured on several videotapes.
Apparently accepting defense arguments that Messrs. Williams and Watson were caught up in mob violence and therefore could not have planned their actions, the jurors found defendants not guilty on counts that required specific intent. Watson was acquitted of attempted murder - which would have mandated a life sentence - but found guilty on a single misdemeanor charge.
Williams was found innocent of aggravated mayhem against Denny but was convicted of the lesser felony count of mayhem for which he could be sentenced to seven years. He was also convicted on four misdemeanor assault charges for attacking other motorists, which could bring the total sentence up to 10 years.
Black leaders were relieved that the men had escaped conviction on higher felony charges in the first round of verdicts, but were not totally exonerated.
``The jury handed out a rough justice deal,'' notes Norman Garland, a former trial attorney. ``It's a compromise of saying [the defendants] are responsible for something but not everything the city blamed them for.''
Whether or not the charges against Williams and Watson had been trumped up from the beginning has been a bone of contention among city factions. Some hold that former District Attorney Ira Reiner went for felony convictions in an election year as a way of scapegoating the black community for igniting the worst riots in United States history. Former Police Chief Gates was widely criticized for grandstanding by personally arresting Williams and Watson in full dress uniform with 200 other officers.
``Certainly it is a lesson from this case that a grand jury [instead of District Attorney Reiner] should have decided what the charges should be,'' notes Myrna Raeder of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Committee on Federal Rules of Procedure and Evidence. ``That could have depoliticized the situation from the beginning.''
As it has turned out, threats by both white and black groups to extend vigilante justice have not happened. Many attribute the calm to public trust in the multiracial jury. The 10-woman, two-man panel consisted of four blacks, four Hispanics, two whites, and two Asian-Americans.
But there is broad concern in some corners that the threat of widespread violence may have made jurors go easy on the defendants. ``Williams and Watson got off a lot easier than many whites can believe,'' says Dr. Goldman. ``Once the jury decided it was definitely [Williams and Watson] in the video, it's hard to understand how they could be found not guilty of assault.''
Because of the five replacement jurors, many experts feel the case may be ripe for reversal in the appeals process.
Most Los Angelenos seem ready to move beyond the trial, echoing the comment of defendant Watson's mother who declared, ``I'm finally able to breathe again.''
Pounded by round-the-clock coverage from sky-cams to mini-cams, many also identify with the mother of Williams, who finally used a water-sprayer to keep media minions at bay.
``Most of us want to leave it all behind now,'' says Roberta Pina, a resident of South Central.