Four Los Angeles police officers won acquittals Wednesday in their trial for the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King, igniting renewed outrage over a racially charged case that had triggered a national debate on police brutality.
Hours after the verdicts were announced, angry demonstrators torched buildings, looted stores and assaulted passersby as civic leaders pleaded for calm. Gov. Pete Wilson deployed the National Guard at the request of Mayor Tom Bradley, who warned residents to "stay off the streets."
Bradley, in a late-night televised address to the city, said a curfew may be imposed tonight if the violence continues.
Wilson's decision to send in the National Guard came after rioters touched off more than 150 fires, stormed police headquarters and trashed numerous downtown buildings. Sporadic gunfire flared in the streets, and heavy smoke rising from the fires forced the authorities to reroute landing patterns for aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport.
By late Wednesday night, authorities had linked four deaths and 106 injuries to the violence. Some people were pulled from their cars and beaten.
It was the largest rioting to erupt in Los Angeles since the Watts riots of 1965.
Acquitted were Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind. Jurors apparently were not convinced that a videotape of the March 3, 1991, beating of King represented the entire story. One juror said that King, by being combative and ignoring the officers' orders, brought the beating upon himself.
The 81-second video, filmed by an amateur, showed officers delivering repeated baton blows and kicks as King rolled on the ground. Its images have been seared into the minds of viewers the world over who have watched the tape broadcast repeatedly.
A visibly angry Bradley said he was left "speechless" by the "senseless" verdicts and urged the city to refrain from violence.
"The jury's verdict will never blind the world to what we saw on the videotape," Bradley said.
The not guilty verdicts by a Ventura County Superior Court jury--which included no blacks--were reached after seven days of deliberations. For three days, the jury forewoman said, the panel focused exclusively on a single count of assault against one of the officers. With the jury unable to reach a consensus, a mistrial was declared on that count by Judge Stanley M. Weisberg.
Except for the single deadlocked count, all four defendants, who are white, were acquitted on all counts. The unresolved count is an assault charge against Powell; prosecutors will announce May 15 whether they will retry the officer.
Upon hearing the verdicts, Briseno--who had testified that he believed his fellow officers were "out of control" when they beat and stomped King--leaped to his feet and hugged his attorney. Powell and his attorney, Michael Stone, hugged each other.
"I'm very happy," Powell told reporters. "But it's hard to be surprised. I felt all along that I was innocent. Now I know I'm innocent."
Attorney Darryl Mounger, who defended Koon, said he believed the verdict turned on "truth."
"He (Koon) wasn't doing anything but making an arrest."
Mounger added that the trial represented a "no-win" situation for all concerned. "Nobody wins," he said. "These officers have been punished enough. Rodney King got out of jail, where he should be, and instead he's going to win a million dollars (in a civil lawsuit)."
As Koon left the courthouse, angry bystanders shouted "Guilty!" and scuffled briefly with sheriff's deputies flanking the sergeant. Powell was greeted by a similar crowd that hurled rocks at him as he left.
The prosecutors, who had stared silently at their table during the reading of the verdicts, hung their heads and marched out of the courtroom.
"My reaction is shock first, then disappointment," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry White, the lead prosecutor in the case. "Obviously we feel the evidence warranted a conviction of the defendants and the jury disagreed with us."
The defense strategy turned on persuading the jury that King was a combative suspect who did not comply with officers' orders. Evidently, it worked.
"He refused to get out of the car," said one juror who was interviewed by The Times. "His two companions got out of the car and complied with all the orders and he just continued to fight. So the Police Department had no alternative. He was obviously a dangerous person. . . . Mr. King was controlling the whole show with his actions."
Extraordinary secrecy measures surrounded the jury, which was sequestered throughout its deliberations. Members refused to talk to reporters after the verdicts were read in a packed, silent courtroom at the East County Courthouse.
"This experience has been an extremely difficult and stressful one, one that we have all agonized over a great deal," said a statement prepared by the jury forewoman, a 64-year-old military contracts manager. "We feel we have done the best job we could have done."
The statement was read by a court official after the jurors were whisked away in a Ventura County Sheriff's Department bus to a nearby Travelodge where they had been sequestered during their deliberations. There, they were escorted to pick up their bags, some of which had masking tape placed on tags to conceal their names and addresses.
The four defendants were acquitted on one count of assault with a deadly weapon. All except Powell were acquitted of assault under the color of authority; the jury deadlocked 8 to 4 favoring acquittal on this count for Powell. He may face a new trial on that count.
Powell and Koon were acquitted of filing a false police report. Koon also was found not guilty of acting as an accessory after the fact.
King's attorney, Steve Lerman, was furious with the verdicts.
"It says it's OK to beat somebody on the ground and beat the crap out of him," Lerman said. "They (the jurors) chose to ignore and disregard the fundamental issue: The issue of brutal, vicious felonious assault against this man. There is nothing Rodney King did to deserve this fate, and (the defendants) are walking out as heroes.
"The fact that maybe 12 white jurors are not going to convict four white cops, it may be as basic as that."
The officers' legal troubles are not over, however. A federal civil rights investigation, which had been put on hold pending the trial's outcome, will be reactivated, U.S. Atty. Lourdes G. Baird said.
Elsewhere in the country, there was a similar outpouring of anger.
"I am shocked, outraged and frightened for our nation," said Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "We all cried and prayed for our nation. . . . Even in Johannesburg, South Africa, they have begun to punish white officers who assault black people."
Lowery planned to hold a prayer vigil at Martin Luther King Jr.'s tomb in Atlanta today.
The King beating quickly became a watershed event in Los Angeles history, spawning an unprecedented move to reform the Police Department, hastening the retirement of one chief and the hiring of another--and forcing this ethnically diverse city into profound introspection on the state of race relations.
With tensions running high after the beating, a blue-ribbon panel was formed to investigate the Police Department. Named the Christopher Commission for its chairman, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the panel found a police force plagued by tacitly condoned racism and abuse at the hands of rogue cops. The commission called on Chief Daryl F. Gates to step down.
After Wednesday's verdicts, Gates met with reporters at Parker Center but declined to express his opinion about the jury's verdict.
"An awful lot of people will voice their opinion," Gates said. "I don't intend to."
Gates directed much of his news conference to urge calm in the city. But even as he spoke, a crowd gathered in front of Parker Center. As Gates left the room, demonstrators were shouting "LAPD are rednecks! LAPD are racists!"
"This may be a test," Gates said. "I believe people will meet that test."
Later, as violence spread through parts of the city, Gates activated the LAPD Emergency Command Center, canceled police leaves and declared a permanent alert.
Gates' designated successor, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams, who is black, was monitoring the riots on television at his Philadelphia home.
"The outbursts by these people are certainly in no way helping the healing process. It's making it very difficult for those people who were trying to take this court decision and make changes.
"It's a no-win situation, everything that occurred in the last few hours, the rioting, the fires, the shooting death.
"They are going to solidify the views of those people who are not wanting to see things smoothed over, but want them further divided."
He declined to comment on the LAPD's tactics of holding back during the early stages of the rioting, but said he will review it when he takes office in several weeks.
He also said he will consult with Los Angeles officials today to see if he could play any role in calming the situation.
"Tactically," Williams told The Times, "it's probably one of the most crucial times in the history of the Police Department--one of the most crucial, precarious times in Chief Gates' career and mine."
Legal experts said the jurors may have reached the verdicts based on their fears of crime and pre-existing attitudes favoring police officers. The key factor, they agreed, was the change of venue granted to the defense. Moving the trial out of Los Angeles County to more conservative and less racially diverse Simi Valley produced a jury disposed to siding with police, the experts said.
The six-man, six-woman jury included one Latina and one Asian-American. Only a handful of blacks were present in the original jury pool.
The four officers' defense attorneys had sought to portray King as a hard-to-handle suspect who made the officers fear for their lives. A convicted felon on parole, King was drunk the night he led police on a high-speed chase through the streets of Los Angeles County until stopping in Lake View Terrace. There, he was ordered out of his car, and the beating followed.
"I tried to put them in the shoes of the police officers," said Stone, "and I think I was able to do that. We got the jurors to look at the case not from the eye of the camera or the eye of a video cameraman, but from the eyes of the officers who were out there that night."
Powell is the officer seen leveling most of the blows at King, who was swung at more than 50 times and stung by an electrical Taser gun.
In speaking to reporters, Powell directed some of his wrath at Gates. "He should have backed us up," Powell said. "He should have backed up his policies," but the verdicts "show that he was wrong."
The jury heard 29 days of testimony from 55 witnesses and was shown the videotape on numerous occasions.
King did not testify at the trial. In an interview with the district attorney's office four months after the beating, he said he "saw death in (Powell's) eyes" and was certain he would be killed by officers who beat him furiously and repeatedly called him "nigger."
Throughout Los Angeles on Wednesday, residents who sat glued to their television sets to watch the delivering of the verdicts expressed astonishment.
"The jury apparently didn't see and hear the same trial I heard," said Inglewood resident Terry Coleman, 49, a former police officer who estimates that he saw 95% of the trial on television. "The verdict's just as racist as what happened that night. I'm ashamed to be from Los Angeles. I'm happy I don't have a uniform anymore.
"I feel like I did when I heard that Martin Luther King died," added Coleman, who is black. "I felt each of those not guiltys--each one of them."
A white bus driver in the San Fernando Valley, who asked that his name not be used, had a similar reaction.
"It's the worst thing that has happened in this nation since Kennedy was shot in '63," he said. "Those guys are as guilty as guilty can be. There ain't a one of them that ain't guilty."
At the Lake View Terrace spot where the beating took place, about 100 people gathered to vent their rage, peacefully but forcefully. They waved signs saying: "Honk Your Horn for Justice."
"The verdict is very wrong," said Russell Baldwin, who is black. "They had it on tape. It showed the cops were wrong. . . . The verdict makes us open targets for police. . . . Who are we supposed to call for protection now?"
"This shows you can't trust the justice system," said Anthony Ellis, another protester. "What is justice? What kind of example do we have to show our kids?"
Although some police officers were surprised by the trial's outcome, many expressed satisfaction.
William Frio, spokesman for the LAPD, said he was shocked but saw a positive side.
"We're a very professional department," he said, "and I think this verdict somewhat vindicates the department."
"I didn't hear any whoops of cheering, there wasn't anyone jumping for joy," said James S. Ellis, a detective in the department's Pacific Division.
"We've definitely been slimed. We've been slimed," Ellis said. "There's a lot of open disrespect for law enforcement. It's police-bashing to its extreme. It's the vogue thing to do."
Bill Violante, president of the Police Protective League, said that although the acquittals were "a victory for these four LAPD officers . . . this verdict should not be interpreted as approval of the manner in which the arrest of Rodney King occurred."
Now, he said, the union intends to call on the mayor and the City Council to reinstate the use of the controversial carotid hold, which was stricken from police policy, leaving officers in the field with few basic tools beyond "the side-handled baton."
"It is incumbent upon city officials to come up with another tool so that we do not have other similar incidents with the use of a side-handled baton," Violante said.
Throughout the three-month trial, defense attorneys had maneuvered to keep the issue of race out of the trial. But when Powell was on the stand, his attorney, Stone, inadvertently asked him about police computer messages he had sent before the beating, opening the door for prosecutor White to quiz the officer about computer messages he sent 20 minutes before the beating.
In one of those messages, Powell told a fellow officer about an earlier incident involving a dispute among a black family that Powell described as "right out of 'Gorillas in the Mist.' "
White grilled Powell about the message. But on the stand, he sought to maintain that he did not consider the message to be racist. Nevertheless, White told the jury in his closing summation that the message was "clearly racially motivated."
Another trial strategy involved Briseno, who, to the surprise of many, mounted a separate defense and said he tried to stop the beating.
On the stand, Briseno testified that he tried to push Powell's baton away. He said he only "placed his foot" on King in an attempt to make the motorist lie still so Powell and Wind would put away their batons. He said he later tried to report to police supervisors that the other three officers had used excessive force on King.
Briseno did not speak to reporters Wednesday, but Powell was asked if his assertions had caused a permanent rift.
Powell said: "I congratulated him after this. I have no animosity."
Wind, who was on probation at the time of the beating, was fired soon thereafter. The other officers, suspended without pay since the incident, now face internal Police Department hearings. Koon's is scheduled for next week before an LAPD administrative tribunal.