After hearing impassioned arguments from defense attorneys, a judge Wednesday postponed a final decision on whether the trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged in the Rodney G. King beating should be moved out of Los Angeles County.
The defense contended that the videotaped beating of King has become so politically charged--and jurors may also find themselves so personally involved--that the four could not get a fair trial unless the case is transferred.
"I don't think I'm going to make a final decision on this today," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bernard Kamins, who earlier in the day had tentatively refused to grant a change of venue.
Saying he was having second thoughts, Kamins told attorneys: "You made points I had not realized or thought of before. . . . (They) are very weighty on my mind."
Kamins said he would consider moving the trial to Northern California or bringing jurors here from another county.
Defense attorneys argued that the King case has polarized the community and left few without strong feelings about the LAPD. It differs from other high-profile cases such as Charles Manson or Sirhan Sirhan, they said, because of the political fallout it has caused.
Patrick Thistle, who represents Officer Laurence Powell, said news reports involving the City Council, Mayor Tom Bradley, Chief Daryl F. Gates, the Police Commission and the Christopher Commission "keep flashing us back to the video" of the beating. Another defense lawyer termed the widely aired videotape of the March 3 incident "at least as damaging as a confession."
Moving the trial would strip the criminal case of its political overtones, the lawyers said. "People in Sacramento don't really know who Melanie Lomax is," said Thistle, referring to the controversial police commissioner who is doing public battle with the City Council.
"This case should be someplace north of the Tehachapis," suggested Herb Barish, standby counsel for Powell. Such a relocation, he said, is "probably the only thing this court can do" to assure a fair trial.
But prosecutors insisted that the case should remain in Los Angeles. "This is the largest county in the state and nowhere else is there such a diversity of people," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Yochelson. He said that publicity will follow the trial wherever it goes. "Moving the trial out of the county will not serve to insulate them (defendants) from publicity."
Earlier Wednesday, the judge had decided to keep the trial here after comparing it to other "sensational" cases.
Holding up a set of brass scales, he said he had spent many hours researching the question and weighing the lawyers' written arguments, finally concluding that the officers could get as fair a trial here as anywhere.
The four defendants, indicted by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury on charges of assault and excessive force, are Sgt. Stacey Koon and Officers Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Powell. A trial date will be set today.
The legal case to be decided is simply "an assault by four men on one man," an offense Kamins called "serious," but "not heinous" when compared to grotesque multiple murders.
What sets it apart, he said, is that "these men had blue uniforms on and it's on tape."
"The impact (of the tape) will follow you whether you go to Berkeley, San Francisco Ventura, or San Bernardino. The impact of the evidence will be the same."
Kamins cited a defense survey that showed that more than 500,000 prospective jurors have not yet formed an opinion about the policemen's guilt or innocence.
And he said that he has seen no evidence so far that indicates jurors in this county can't set aside any opinions they might have formed from the news coverage and decide the case on the evidence they hear in court.