Briseno Breaks Silence About King Beating : LAPD: Officer is defensive, bitter and angry as he describes his ordeal since that infamous night. He lashes out at politicians, the department and a co-defendant.
Sitting in his lawyer’s office, Theodore J. Briseno fidgeted in his chair, stared out the 18th-story window and took a deep breath.
After months of self-imposed silence, Briseno--facing federal civil rights charges in the March 3, 1991, videotaped beating of Rodney G. King--said he was eager to tell his version of the events that transformed him from an unknown street cop into one of the four most infamous police officers in the United States.
But the case has so overwhelmed Briseno’s life that his feelings come out in bursts. Sometimes he is defensive and bitter, other times anguished.
“I have so much anger,” Briseno, 40, said during a 2 1/2-hour interview with The Times on Friday. “I don’t know what to do with it all.”
Once a supporter of President Bush, Briseno is furious with him for his comments about the case. He is mad at Mayor Tom Bradley for condemning the verdicts, at the Police Department for abandoning him, at one of his co-defendants for comments he made in a manuscript, at the media for the way they have covered the case and at the federal government for new charges it has filed.
All of that leaves Briseno tightly wound. He has gone for more than a year without a paycheck, and bills are piling up. He worries about his wife, Kathy, and his two daughters--one is 11, the other 9. He has trouble sleeping and eating, and says he has lost 22 pounds: the stiff-collared shirt he wore Friday hung loose around his thin neck.
He sees a therapist twice a week, and joked bleakly about suicide. Smiling thinly, he said that if he wanted to kill himself, he would have done it long before now.
“There are days where you think everything is going OK,” Briseno said, nervously tugging at a rubber band wound around his left hand. “But then you sort of drift around, and you wake out of it and find yourself in your back yard, and you don’t know how you got there or how long you’ve been there. It’s overwhelming.”
It has been 17 months since Briseno used his foot to push King to the pavement in Lake View Terrace, a blow that prosecutors say was intended to hurt King and deprive him of his civil rights.
During the state trial in Simi Valley, Briseno testified that he was King’s defender, and was trying to protect the motorist from getting up and being struck by other police officers.
That testimony, during which Briseno said the beating had gone “out of control,” broke the “code of silence” among police officers. Because of that--and because many familiar with the case believe that Briseno lied on the stand--he has been ostracized by some officers and isolated from his co-defendants, with whom he says he has never spoken at length.
Last week, however, he emerged from his long silence. His new lawyer, Harland Braun, wants to remold the public’s view of Briseno.
With that encouragement, Briseno is launching an ambitious media schedule. He began last week by giving interviews to the “Today” show and the London Daily Mail. This week, he will appear on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”
In addition to spreading Briseno’s version of the events on the night of the beating, the exposure helps communicate some subtler points. Among other things, Braun hopes viewers will notice Briseno’s size. He stands 5 feet, 9 inches and weighs less than 130 pounds these days, making him by far the smallest of the four officers charged in the beating.
At the same time, the new approach exposes Briseno to a torrent of questions, some of them hostile. Braun, one of the best known criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles, has put no limits on what his client can be asked.
“I figure, you either trust your client to give interviews or you don’t,” Braun said later. “I trust him, and he doesn’t need me watching over him.”
On April 29, a Ventura County jury acquitted Briseno of assault and excessive force in the King beating. Also acquitted on all counts were co-defendants Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and former Officer Timothy E. Wind. Officer Laurence M. Powell, who delivered the majority of the blows to King, was acquitted on all counts except for one in which the jury could not reach a verdict.
There was an instant of relief, Briseno said, but it quickly passed. The federal government reopened its investigation of the beating soon after the verdicts and three weeks ago filed civil rights charges against the four officers.
Briseno blames that on Bush and the pressures of an election year. In particular, Briseno faults the President for saying he and his family were “stunned” by the not guilty verdicts.
“I want to ask the President: ‘Why did you say those things? You don’t know me. You don’t know my family. You don’t know about my performance on the job,’ ” Briseno said. “Bush wants to push this case because he wants to get elected.”
During the interview, Briseno stressed several times that he is not a violent person, that he has never raised his voice to his wife. There are those who disagree, including his ex-wife, who has said that he beat her on several occasions. Briseno was suspended in 1987 for 66 days after allegedly beating and stomping a suspect in custody.
Briseno denies both allegations. His ex-wife is bitter and out to sell her story, he said. Although he acknowledges the suspension, he says he was not guilty but accepted the punishment to put the incident behind him.
Briseno politely fielded hours of questions during the interview, but bristled when asked whether his colleagues will ever forgive him for testifying against other officers.
“These policemen who feel I broke the code, that’s fine,” Briseno said, his voice rising. “They’re not in my shoes. They don’t have the slightest idea--not the slightest--about what me and my family are going through.”
As in his testimony last spring, Briseno said he believes that the beating was excessive, and he was particularly critical of Powell.
On the videotape, Briseno is seen with his foot on what appears to be the back of King’s head or neck. Briseno pushes King down hard to the pavement, but he says he was trying to get King to stay down so that he would not be hit again. In another section of the tape, Briseno reaches for Powell’s baton, and he testified that he was pleading with Powell to stop the beating.
As he was leaving the federal courthouse recently, Powell said: “Nobody buys that story.”
Powell’s lawyer, Michael P. Stone, agreed: “There are so many reasons to disbelieve Ted. He doesn’t just want to be innocent. He wants to be a hero.”
Briseno responds by saying he told the truth about Powell’s actions, but he concedes that there may be other interpretations of the same exchange.
“We all saw it different ways,” Briseno said. “It’s my view that the force was excessive, but I can see how some people would see it differently.”
Braun stresses that point and said he has asked the other defense lawyers to consider a unified strategy. Still, there are other issues that could pit the defendants against each other. In particular, Briseno said he is concerned about statements made by Koon in an unpublished manuscript.
In that document, Koon referred to King as Mandingo, a reference to a West African people that is sometimes used as a derogatory term for black male slaves.
“I was totally shocked by that,” Briseno said. “It was a total embarrassment. . . . That hurts me, too. It hurts me because everyone talks about the ‘four white police officers.’ They lump us together. . . . I’m not racist.”
Although Briseno said he expected that at least Powell would be convicted in state court, he added that he believes all four are innocent of the charges brought by the federal government. To be guilty of violating King’s civil rights, the officers would need to have intentionally sought to deprive King of those rights, and Briseno said the moment was too charged, too chaotic, for the officers to have acted willfully and in concert.
A federal grand jury meeting in Los Angeles disagreed.
To Briseno, the new charges feel more like persecution than prosecution.
“It’s like we were the Cinderella team,” Briseno said. “We came from nowhere and we won. Now the federal government comes in and says: ‘Time out. We’re going to play the game again, and this time we’re going to bring in our home run hitters.’ ”
The coming months loom ominously for Briseno. It could be months before the new trial begins, and Briseno cannot go anywhere without being recognized. At lunch in a busy mall, several people stared hard and whispered to each other as he passed.
He ignored the long looks, but says the notoriety can be oppressive. Most of all, he worries about where this case will end because none of the options look inviting.
If he is convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If he is acquitted, he looks toward an uncertain future, knowing he will never return to police work and the life he enjoyed before March 3, 1991.
“We were just at that stage where everything was going right,” Briseno said. “We have a great family, and we’re happy in our community. Everything was wonderful. And then everything changed.”