King Case Shifts to Courtroom in Simi Valley
Eleven months after the videotaped Rodney G. King beating triggered the most notorious scandal ever to envelop the Los Angeles Police Department, prosecutors, defense attorneys and four indicted officers met Monday in a suburban Ventura County courthouse to prepare to go to trial.
In the final round of pretrial hearings, Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg turned down an unusual request from the defense attorneys that peace officers--by state law excluded from sitting on criminal court juries--be considered for jury duty in the case.
As the hearing started, a dozen representatives of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People began what they said will be daily monitoring of court proceedings. Speaking to scores of reporters who also converged on the courthouse, the NAACP members said they are concerned that the politically conservative Simi Valley community--largely white and home to many police officers--may not be the best setting to ensure a fair trial.
“We are here to follow this case to the bitter end,” said Jose DeSosa, president of the California State Conference of the NAACP and head of the organization’s branch in the San Fernando Valley, where the March 3 beating occurred.
The trial was ordered moved to Ventura County last year after a state appellate court panel ruled that political fallout and community divisiveness made it impossible for a Los Angeles County jury to impartially decide the case.
On Wednesday and Thursday mornings, as many as 500 prospective jurors will begin arriving at the East County Courthouse here, which has remained largely unused since its opening less than a year ago.
A total of 2,000 notices were mailed to potential jurors in what officials say will be among the largest jury selection panels ever assembled in California.
With the trial expected to last through the end of April or into May, potential jurors will be asked whether they are available for such lengthy service. Those who are will be asked to fill out detailed questionnaires on their backgrounds and attitudes.
Attorneys are expected to ask whether potential jurors were affected by repeated broadcast of the King videotape.
In addition, prosecutors and defense attorneys will try to gauge would-be jurors’ opinions of the intense political fighting that erupted after the beating, pitting Parker Center against City Hall and leading to an unprecedented Christopher Commission investigation that found numerous incidents of racism and brutality in the Police Department.
Even today, the fighting continues in Los Angeles. The City Council and Police Commission are pressing forward with proposals to reform the department, while Chief Daryl F. Gates has vowed to fight the reforms. Targeted for ouster in the immediate wake of the beating, Gates now says he will stay on the job until after the June election, in which city voters will decide to what extent they want to make over the Police Department.
Adding to the charged atmosphere have been numerous pretrial skirmishes. As a result of one, Judge Bernard J. Kamins was removed from presiding over the trial when an appeals court ruled that he improperly communicated with prosecutors. Weisberg, a Los Angeles judge selected as Kamins’ replacement, decided to move the trial here after the court-ordered change of venue.
Jurors will determine the fate of Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno, who have pleaded not guilty to beating King.
As the first session in Simi Valley opened Monday, elaborate courthouse security was in place. All courtroom visitors, including the four defendants, passed through a metal detector, and security cameras have been installed in the courtroom ceiling.
When the hearing started, prosecutors and defense attorneys presented a number of last-minute requests.
The discussions ranged from the weighty to the mundane. At one point, Terry White, chief prosecutor for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, advised the judge that it might be better for jurors and attorneys not to be placed in the awkward position of using the same restroom facilities.
To great laughter in the packed courtroom, Weisberg responded: “I hadn’t really considered that, so you’ll just have to plan your trips.”
Weisberg also made final his earlier order that the trial may be broadcast live by New York-based Court Television Network, which recently broadcast the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in Florida. The judge imposed a 15-second delay in the broadcast. Live TV coverage is expected to begin with opening statements in early March.
Monday’s most substantive request came from William J. Kopeny, an attorney for Briseno, who asked the judge to set aside a state court procedural requirement that disqualifies peace officers from being impaneled on criminal court juries.
The disqualification requirement originated because police officers work as arms of the prosecution and therefore are presumed to be biased in favor of conviction.
But Kopeny, joined in his request by the other three defense attorneys, argued that the federal Constitution provides that criminal defendants “have a right to a trial by their peers.”
Weisberg said, “Common sense would dictate that police officers should be excluded in this matter.”
NAACP representatives who attended the hearing said they were worried that the trial could be affected by the number of law enforcement officials living in the area.
The 1980 census found that about 2,000 active law enforcement officials live in Simi Valley and adjacent Thousand Oaks, but that figure has doubled in the last 10 years, according to police officials in both cities. The 1990 census numbers are not available.
Prosecutors and attorneys for the four white officers accused of beating the black motorist will be selecting 12 jurors and six alternates in a county where blacks make up only 2% of the population, compared to 10.5% in Los Angeles County.
“It concerns me,” said John R. Hatcher III, president of the Ventura County NAACP branch, “that we’re going to have a criminal jury selected from a community where everybody living here is either a police officer or is a friend of or related to a police officer.”
But John Barnett, co-counsel with Kopeny for Briseno, said such fears are unfounded: “It would be unfair to say the people of Simi Valley could not provide a fair trial for both sides.”