The criminal trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney G. King opened Wednesday as the first wave of hundreds of potential jurors were given lengthy questionnaires gauging their attitudes toward the police and an officer's right to use force against members of the public.
The wide-ranging, 41-page questionnaires were ordered sealed by Judge Stanley M. Weisberg.
But a copy obtained Wednesday by The Times shows that the attorneys are focusing their jury examination on three key issues: attitudes about a police officer's use of force against criminal suspects; the effect of the extensive media coverage, and whether the trial outcome might be shaped by jurors' family histories and lifestyles.
The questionnaires--listing 102 topics and the names of 173 possible witnesses--ask jury pool members whether they have "ever had cause to fear the police," whether they watch reality-based TV shows such as "Cops" or "Top Cops," and even whether they own a video camera.
Those who own video cameras are being asked to answer this question: "Does it have an automatic focus lens."
King, an Altadena motorist, was stopped by police March 3 in Lake View Terrace, where an amateur cameraman captured for posterity the scene of several officers beating him with batons and kicking him after he had been shot with a sergeant's electrical dart gun.
The videotape--which begins with hazy images that suddenly snap into sharp focus--aired extensively throughout Southern California and around the world. It prompted a scathing report documenting racism and brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department and led to a divisive political struggle over the future of the LAPD.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys devised the questionnaire system as a way to speedily measure how the extensive coverage and political fallout from the incident may have influenced the attitudes of potential jurors.
Citing the order by Weisberg, lawyers on both sides of the case have refused to discuss any part of the questionnaires. The prospective jurors given the documents Wednesday were advised by the judge and admonished on the first page of the questionnaire not to "discuss the questions or your answers with any other person."
But the questionnaires provide insight into obstacles the lawyers expect to encounter in selecting a fair and impartial panel of 12 jurors and six alternates.
For example, the potential jurors are asked:
* "Do you think police officers treat people differently in low income neighborhoods than they do in middle to upper income neighborhoods."
* "What are your views towards the police in general or the role of the police officer?"
* "Do you feel that a police officer's testimony will be more truthful or accurate than that of a civilian? . . . What are your views towards police officers as individuals? . . . Do you believe police officers can make mistakes?"
There are 10 questions dealing directly with "the amount of force a police officer is entitled to use in the arrest of another."
The jury pool members are being asked if a police officer "is or should be entitled to use force or violence to punish a person who has or the officer believes has committed some criminal act."
"Do you believe that a police officer should be the subject of criminal prosecution if he has committed what the law declares to be a crime while on duty?" the jurors are asked.
"Do you believe that the conduct of police officers in the field should ever be the subject of criminal prosecution?"
Questions about race seek to determine whether any potential juror has been exposed to prejudice. The jurors are also advised that King, a black man, was allegedly victimized by three white officers and one Latino officer. "Is there anything about such a scenario that causes you concern?" the questionnaire inquires.
Other topics discussed include whether the jury pool members heard of the controversy surrounding the King beating. Without being specific, the questions made reference to the status of LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, who has indicated he will step down after the June elections, the conduct of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners and the Los Angeles city elections in June on proposed measures to reform the Police Department.
Likewise, there are questions about the Christopher Commission, which last July documented evidence of brutality, racism and mismanagement inside the LAPD.
The lengthy witness list includes Gates and three candidates to succeed him--Assistant Chiefs David Dotson and Robert Vernon, and Deputy Chief Bernard Parks.
Also named as witnesses are Jesse Brewer, a former assistant chief who serves as vice president of the Police Commission; the more than two dozen peace officers present as bystanders during the beating; video cameraman George Holliday, and Rodney G. King.
The four defendants--Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno--are not listed as witnesses.
But the four policemen, all of whom have pleaded not guilty, are likely to testify in their own defense during the trial, which Weisberg estimated Wednesday will last through the end of April or into May. Michael Stone, the attorney for Powell, for example, told reporters: "I can't conceive of a police officer accused of excessive force not taking the stand."
In the courtroom, Stone asked Weisberg to prohibit members of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People from wearing black armbands at the courthouse because it might "intimidate or influence" the jury. He noted that several NAACP members wore the armbands during a pretrial hearing Monday, and he said they later gave television interviews expressing the view that all four officers should be convicted.
The Rev. Robert Harris, pastor of the Simi Second Missionary Baptist Church, who was conducting the NAACP's daily monitoring of the case Wednesday, denied that his group is trying to sabotage a fair trial for the defendants.
"It's just a show of support for the trial," he said, "to see how the trial is going and whether justice is served."
But, he added, "from what I saw of the videotape, I feel excessive force was used."
Weisberg will rule on the request later.
In all, notices were sent out to 2,000 prospective jurors. About half of the 205 who showed up Wednesday were given the questionnaires and told to return them on Friday. The selection process is expected to run through the end of the month.