A Superior Court jury on Wednesday acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of using excessive force when they beat black motorist Rodney G. King, rousing renewed anger over a racially charged case that had triggered a political uproar in Los Angeles and unleashed a national debate on police abuse.
The not guilty verdicts by the Ventura County jury--which included no blacks--were reached after barely six hours of deliberations, the panel's forewoman disclosed in court. For the next three days, she 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.
Jurors apparently were not convinced by a videotape that captured the March 3, 1991, beating of King by Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind. The 81-second video, filmed by an amateur, showed the officers delivering repeated baton blows to King as he lay prone on the ground.
Its images have been seared in the minds of viewers the world over who have watched the tape broadcast repeatedly.
The long-awaited verdicts immediately triggered protests and expressions of outrage by shocked community leaders, politicians and many residents throughout Southern California. Loud demonstrations were convened at the Police Department's Civic Center headquarters and at the site of the beating in the Lake View Terrace area of the San Fernando Valley.
A visibly angry Mayor Tom Bradley said he was left "speechless" by the "senseless" verdicts and urged the city to remain calm. "The jury's verdict will never blind the world to what we saw on the videotape."
Bradley said the system "failed us" and that the men who beat King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"I'm outraged at this result," King's attorney, Steve Lerman, said. "Any right-thinking, normal person who sees that videotape and experiences the shock and viciousness of the event can't sit with this verdict as being the final say."
Elsewhere in the country, there was a similar outpouring of anger.
"I am shocked, outraged, and frightened for our nation," said Dr. 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's tomb in Atlanta today.
Except for the single deadlocked count, all four defendants, who are white, were acquitted on all counts. They may face a federal civil rights investigation, however.
The jury 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 the baggage tags to conceal names and addresses.
The four defendants were acquitted of one count of assault with a deadly weapon. All except Powell were acquitted of assault under the color of authority; the jury deadlocked 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.
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.
Later, as Koon left the courthouse, angry bystanders shouted "Guilty!" and scuffled briefly with sheriff's deputies flanking the sergeant.
The prosecutors, who had stared silently at their table during the reading of the verdicts, hung their heads and marched out of the courtroom after verdicts were read.
"My reaction is shock first, then disappointment," Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry White, the lead prosecutor on the case, said. "Obviously we feel the evidence warranted a conviction of the defendants and jury disagreed with us."
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 in the wake of the beating, a blue-ribbon panel was formed to probe 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 said: "I think that we have a system of justice . . . we just witnessed that system work. We may not like it . . . but we must not prejudge the system. We must not prejudge the administrative systems of justice."
The acquittals were likely to fuel simmering feelings of mistrust that many people in Los Angeles, especially minorities, have toward law enforcement and judicial authorities.
Perhaps with this in mind, Gates' designated successor, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams, who is black, called on residents to keep the peace.
"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 pre-existing attitudes that favor police officers and fear crime. 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, these experts said.
The six-man, six-woman jury included one Latina and one Asian-American, but only a handful of blacks were present in the original jury pool.
The four officers' defense attorneys had sought to downplay racism as an issue in the case and portrayed 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 struck more than 50 times and stung by an electrical Tazer gun.
"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."
The jury heard 29 days of testimony from 55 witnesses, and was shown the videotape on numerous occasions.
King did not testify in 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."
Lerman, who spoke to King after the verdicts were read, said the 26-year-old Altadena resident, was shocked. The results of this trial, he added, send a very negative message to the world.
"It says it's OK to beat somebody on the ground and beat the crap out of him," Lerman said. " . . . They (the jury) 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."
Throughout Los Angeles, residents who sat glued to their television sets to watch the delivering of the verdicts expressed outrage and 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," added Anthony Ellis, another protester. "What is justice? What kind of example do we have to show our kids?"
Even some police officers were surprised at the trial's end. 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."
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 just 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."
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 May 8 before the LAPD's Board of Rights.