After months of uncertainty, a judge decided Tuesday that the trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused in the beating of motorist Rodney G. King will be held in Ventura County beginning Feb. 3.
Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg rejected the prosecution's argument that the trial be moved from Los Angeles to the more racially diverse, less conservative Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area. During a 90-minute hearing in downtown Los Angeles, Weisberg said such a move would be too costly and inconvenient for the parties.
Weisberg, who was appointed last week to preside over the case, eliminated Orange County from consideration, he said, because of the unavailability of courtrooms. He gave no reason for rejecting Riverside County, the other site under consideration.
In the end, both the prosecution and defense agreed that a fair trial can be held in Ventura County.
"No, we are not disappointed," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry White. "We think we can get a fair trial in Ventura County."
Steven Lerman, King's lawyer, said he had "every confidence in the great citizens of Ventura County that they will get justice done."
Michael Stone, who is representing Officer Laurence M. Powell, said the judge's decision prevents him and his client from "having to travel halfway up the state." Lawyers for Sgt. Stacy C. Koon, Officer Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind, who was fired after the beating of the black motorist because he was on departmental probation, also said they were pleased with the choice.
The long-awaited trial of the four white officers was ordered moved out of Los Angeles County in July by an appeals court, which agreed with a defense argument that excessive publicity and a highly charged political climate had made it impossible for the officers to get a fair hearing there.
Some observers suggested that Ventura County's racial demographics and political conservatism might make it more difficult for prosecutors to win. Weisberg said he did not consider population makeup in his decision.
Blacks compose 2% of Ventura County's population, compared with 17.2% in Alameda County and 10.5% in Los Angeles County.
"It is naive to think demographics will not be a factor in this case," said Geoffrey Taylor Gibbs, a lawyer and board member of the 900-member John Langston Bar Assn., a black lawyers group. He said that the case should have been moved to Alameda County.
"This is one of the most important cases of our time," Gibbs said, "and it seems to me that no expense is too great to make sure justice is carried out."
Attorneys in Ventura said the King case may be harder to prosecute there because residents are less likely to have had violent encounters with police officers and tend to support law enforcement.
"Frankly, I think the officers stand a far better chance here than they did in Los Angeles," said lawyer Alan Wisotsky, whose Ventura firm represents local police officers in excessive-force lawsuits. "The climate in Ventura County is generally more pro-police."
Ventura County prosecutors said they rarely file brutality charges against officers.
"If somebody is trying to figure out the impact" of the judge's choice, said Vincent J. O'Neill, chief deputy district attorney, "they might look at this county's jury (pool)." According to the 1990 census, 66% of the county was white, and the pool of jurors for the King trial is likely to reflect the area's population, he said.
Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth Clayman said it is unfortunate that the King case will not have a jury from central Los Angeles.
"The chances would be there for a much more ethnically diverse jury," Clayman said. "Assuming the case was moved because of the publicity, I don't see that there was any less publicity here than in Los Angeles."
But David Judd, a Ventura lawyer who lost a brutality case against an Oxnard policeman shortly after the King beating, said he thinks local juries are fair-minded.
"It's a more conservative county," he said, "but I tend to think people in Ventura County can be as fair as anywhere else."
Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack, who has been critical of the Police Department since the videotaped March 3 beating of King in Lake View Terrace, agreed.
"Ventura County is better than some other choices I could think of," Mack said. "It is my hope that the potential jurors in Ventura County will have pretty good firsthand knowledge that these four police officers should have the book thrown at them."
Sheila Gonzalez, executive officer of the Ventura County Superior Court, said the trial will be held at the Simi Valley Courthouse, an $11-million facility that opened earlier this year.
"I just think it's a perfect place for this kind of case because the facility is underutilized at this point," Gonzalez said. The court personnel for the King case will come from Los Angeles County.
During Tuesday's hearing, prosecutor White argued against Ventura County, primarily, he said, because of its proximity to Los Angeles County.
The same problems of excessive publicity and political controversy that led to the change of venue order would exist in any adjoining county, he argued.
He also contended that Alameda County should be chosen "in the interest of justice" because its demographics are more like those in Los Angeles County.
But Weisberg noted that publicity about the King case had diminished considerably. He also contended that the storm of controversy that beset Los Angeles in the weeks after the incident never existed elsewhere.