The lead prosecutor in the trial over the beating of Rodney G. King said Thursday that he did not get one juror he wanted for the case that ended with the acquittals of three police officers and the partial acquittal of the fourth.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry L. White said in an interview that the six-man, six-woman panel would have been "a perfect jury" in a criminal case with a civilian defendant, but could not have been worse for a case in which law enforcement officers were defendants.
"These jurors were very pro-law enforcement," based on their responses to jury questionnaires, White said. "They were people who believe there is this 'thin blue line' separating law-abiding citizens from the jungle--the criminal element.
"They are people who put police officers on a pedestal. They have had very positive experiences with police officers, even when they get a traffic ticket."
In fact, one of the jurors who was mistakenly arrested about 20 years ago said on his questionnaire that he harbored no hard feelings toward police.
"They were going to side with the four officers before they ever sided with Rodney King," White said. The jurors--10 whites, one Latino and one Asian-American--spurned the key evidence in the case, including the videotape of King's beating, he said.
Nonetheless, he said, "I don't want anyone to believe we think the verdicts were racist decisions. I have no evidence they were based on the color of the prosecutor or the color of Mr. King."
The 35-year-old attorney, who is black, defended his key actions in the case, and those of co-counsel Alan Yochelson and Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner--including the decision not to call King to the witness stand.
White said he expected the jury to convict Officer Laurence M. Powell, who administered most of the blows to King, and Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, the supervisor at the beating scene in Lake View Terrace.
He said he considered it possible that Officers Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno would be acquitted. He felt that because Wind was a young officer "the jurors might feel sorry for him." And Briseno, White noted, had criticized the conduct of the other officers and maintained that he had tried to stop the beating.
White said he considered dropping out of the case in December when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg moved the trial to Simi Valley. When the venue was changed, White said, he realized the jury pool would have a far greater percentage of whites than in Los Angeles.
"I knew Ventura County is only 2% black," White said. "I didn't know if just by the color of my skin, I'd be a hindrance.
"I thought about that for a week or so. Then I thought I was being a little paranoid. I decided to stay on the case. I never discussed it with anyone.
"My conclusion was that I'd been on this case for eight months and that I knew the case better than anyone else. I was the best one to try the case."
White acknowledged saying publicly that the prosecution could get a fair trial in Ventura County after Weisberg announced that the case would be moved there. But he said it would have been impolitic to say anything else and the statement belied private worries.
"We were concerned. We knew a lot of law enforcement officers lived in Simi Valley," he said. "But you don't stand up and say 'We can't get a fair trial there' just two months before the trial is supposed to start there."
White said he thought state law should be changed to give prosecutors a voice in where a trial is relocated after a judge grants a change of venue.
The original trial judge in the case, Bernard Kamins, rejected the defense's bid to move the trial, he noted. Then the state Court of Appeal reversed Kamins and said the case should be moved. The appeals court said the King case was different than other high-profile cases, such as the Charles Manson and Hillside Strangler cases, because it also had precipitated a political battle in Los Angeles.
In a separate interview, Dist. Atty. Reiner said his office had decided not to appeal the venue ruling to the state Supreme Court for two reasons. "Based on the decision by the court of appeals, the chances of getting a reversal were low, and appealing would have resulted in a substantial delay in the trial."
White said that he and six other members of the district attorney's staff agonized over which potential jurors they wanted. They reviewed responses submitted by 264 potential jurors and rated them on a "1-to-5 scale, with 1 being best and 5 being worst," he said.
"There were only 27 '1s' and '2s' on the entire list, and none of them got on the jury," White said. He said he never before tried a case where he did not get any of his preferred choices on the jury.
In fact, he said that there were so many "5s" on his list that he wound up elevating some of them to "4s" because he had to differentiate between potentially bad and truly undesirable jurors.
White said that there were only half a dozen blacks on the panel of 264 and that only a couple of them were formally considered because of the order in which their names came up. One black woman said she couldn't be fair to the officers because she had such strong feelings about the beating.
White said that he had no second thoughts about Reiner's decision not to have King testify. King had made several statements shortly after the beating that could have been used to impeach him on cross-examination, he said.
"King said he had not been drinking, not been speeding, had pulled over immediately when he saw officers following him, in no way resisted . . . and that it was not a racial incident," White said. In fact, King had been driving well over the legal limit, was legally drunk, led police on a high-speed chase and did not immediately comply with their orders after he was apprehended.
The prosecutor said he also worried that defense lawyers would have been able to tell jurors that King had a criminal record.
White defended his decision not to make racial issues a key element of the prosecution. "None of the witnesses we talked to heard racial epithets" at the scene, he said.
Moreover, prosecutors could not hear racial epithets on the videotape of the beating, even after they had the sound enhanced. But White acknowledged that an enhancement expert hired by Steven Lerman, King's attorney in his federal lawsuit, has said he heard a racial epithet on the tape.
"We felt that if you introduce race as an issue and you don't prove race, that undermines your credibility with the jury," White said. "Believe me, if there had been statements (made at the scene indicating the beating was racially motivated) we would not have hesitated to raise that."
Race became an issue in the trial only after an inadvertent mistake by defense lawyer Michael P. Stone allowed prosecutors to question his client, Powell, about statements he had made over a police radio just before the King beating. Powell said that had intervened in a domestic disturbance involving a group of African-Americans that was "right out of 'Gorillas in the Mist,' " a reference to a movie about African wildlife.
He declined comment on whether the district attorney's office has decided whether to retry Powell on the charge of using excessive force. The jury stalemated 8 to 4 for acquittal on that count. Prosecutors are to disclose their decision at a May 15 court hearing.