Under the protective eyes of the U.S. Marshals Service and amid a crush of reporters from around the world, 333 Southern Californians nervously stepped forward Wednesday to serve as prospective jurors in one of the most volatile criminal cases in history, the federal trial of four police officers charged with violating Rodney G. King's civil rights.
"The 12 people selected will have an . . . extraordinarily interesting experience in this case," U.S. District Judge John G. Davies told the prospective jurors once they were assembled in the courthouse. "I think you will look back on this case as a true highlight in your life."
Members of the panel were drawn from seven Southern California counties and the group was racially mixed. They arrived at the federal courthouse early and were given detailed questionnaires intended to ferret out anyone whose biases make it impossible to serve fairly in the trial. The 53-page questionnaire, which jurors were given the day to complete, probes such sensitive areas as their reactions to the riots and their feelings about police and race relations.
The convening of Wednesday's session marked the first official act of the trial, which is expected to last six to eight weeks once a jury has been selected. After all sides have had a chance to review the responses to the questionnaires, prospective jurors will be called back Feb. 16 to be questioned personally.
Finding 12 impartial citizens could prove to be one of the most difficult tasks that the judge and lawyers face. Few cases in history have attracted such attention or caused such severe fallout--52 people died in the riots that swept Los Angeles last spring after the not guilty verdicts returned in the same defendants' state trial.
The case's turbulent legacy was evident Wednesday in the pacing of the defendants outside the jury assembly room, in the nervous laughter of prospective jurors, and, possibly, in the turnout. More than 6,000 "invitations" went out to prospective jurors, informing them that they had been picked as candidates for an important trial scheduled to begin Feb. 3.
The letter did not name the case but warned that jurors might be sequestered for eight weeks. Only 380 of those who received the letters said they would be available to serve, and fewer than that showed up Wednesday.
Even Davies, who is presiding over the case and has announced his belief that an impartial jury can be found, acknowledged that few, if any, jurors are likely to be ignorant of the case or the riots that followed.
"You are to be considered for jury service in a historic case," Davies said as he introduced himself to one group of prospective jurors. "You probably already know what the case is. You're not supposed to, but you probably do."
For anyone who did not, the answer came quickly. Davies' clerk, Jim Holmes, called the morning session to order and Davies read the two-count indictment that charges the four defendants with violating King's civil rights March 3, 1991.
Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind are accused of violating King's right to be safe from the intentional use of unreasonable force because they allegedly "did willfully strike with batons, kick and stomp" King. Sgt. Stacey C. Koon is charged with allowing those officers under his supervision to beat King, thereby depriving him of the right to be kept free from harm while in custody.
After the indictments were read, Davies introduced the lawyers in the case and the four defendants, who stood with him in the center of the sprawling jury assembly area. Many of the jurors were in rooms out of sight of the judge and defendants, but they stood and craned necks around pillars to get a glimpse. Davies reminded the prospective jurors of their obligation to set aside any impressions they had of the case or of the four officers.
"These four gentlemen are presumed to be innocent," Davies said. "This is a bedrock of law in the United States."
Although the session was brief and matter of fact, some of the emotion that surrounds the case spilled over quickly.
At one point in his remarks, Davies talked to jurors about the questionnaires and urged them to answer candidly. "You have our assurance that it will be confidential and treated as such forever, I hope," Davies added.
But after jurors were sworn in, at least one prospective panelist picked up on the ambiguity in Davies' assurance. That man stood and demanded in a loud voice: "You are asking us to solemnly swear, but you are not solemnly swearing that our questionnaires will be kept confidential. Why don't you take an oath?"
A marshal tried to intervene, stepping forward and exclaiming, "That's enough!" But the man persisted.
"I'm a citizen," said the prospective juror, a middle-aged man wearing a jacket and glasses. "I have a right to speak."
Davies deftly defused the situation, declining to take an oath but telling the man that it was a fair question and that the court had issued an order to prevent the information from ever being released.
Davies invited jurors to come forward and be excused if they deeply feared that the information might be released despite his order. No one moved.
Although Davies did not say so Wednesday, he may not be able to block the release of the completed questionnaires. News organizations, including The Times, are considering appealing his decision to keep the questionnaires secret.
The organizations are not seeking the names of the jurors, but they want to receive the numbered questionnaires to give the public access to information about the attitudes of the jurors who render verdicts in this case.
As defense lawyers left the courthouse, several said they were troubled by the exchange between the prospective juror and Davies. Several of those attorneys have said they believe that a fair trial for the officers may be impossible amid the strong emotions that continue to overshadow the case. They said the outburst highlighted that concern.
"This is exactly why I was arguing until I was blue in the face for a continuance," said Ira Salzman, the lawyer who represents Koon. "This community still has not cooled off."
Tensions surrounding the jury selection had nerves on edge inside the courthouse and on the steps of the granite and marble building.
A small group of protesters, including one of the defendants accused of attacking trucker Reginald O. Denny, chanted and carried placards condemning the Los Angeles Police Department and racism. Inside, marshals at first were patient with onlookers, but occasionally lashed out at journalists and others who crowded outside the jury selection room, peering through curtained windows for a glimpse inside.
Down the hall, a group of courtroom artists tangled fiercely over which of them should be allowed to cover the event. A knot of spectators, including Compton City Councilwoman Patricia Moore, tried to gain admission to the jury assembly room. They were turned away.
Meanwhile, the four defendants and their lawyers waited uncomfortably for the proceeding to begin. They were within sight of the sign-in table for prospective jurors, and one man glanced their way as he checked in.
"Hey, that's that cop," he said, nodding at Powell, who was locked in conversation with his lawyer, Michael P. Stone. Marshals whisked the man inside the jury room before he said anything else.
Lawyers did not have any chance to speak in front of the jurors Wednesday and will not begin the process of oral questioning until Feb. 16. In the meantime, they will focus on the extraordinarily detailed questionnaire, which was drafted by defense lawyers and prosecutors under the guidance of Davies.
Among the more sensitive areas covered in the questionnaire is the topic of race relations. Prospective jurors were asked whether they favor affirmative action policies, whether they believe society treats people of all races equally and whether they would favor or oppose the marriage of a family member to a person of a different race.
"Some of those are unusual questions, particularly the one about interracial marriage," said Harland W. Braun, Briseno's lawyer. "But they are designed to elicit responses, and we're going to look carefully at how people answer."
Even more pointed are a series of questions about the state case and the spring riots.
Prospective jurors were asked whether they agreed with the not guilty verdicts in that trial, and they were asked about their feelings toward jurors who were involved in that case.
Most pointedly, the questionnaire asks: "If you serve as a juror in this case, how would you anticipate being treated by your family, friends and acquaintances if the defendants are acquitted?" And it poses the opposite question, asking prospective jurors how they believe they would be treated if the defendants are found guilty.
"In ordinary cases, such questions would not be asked," Davies told the prospective jurors. "But because the case is this case and because of its overriding importance today, we have sought to place an extra burden on you people."
Lawyers expect to receive the completed questionnaires today, and will begin the process of weeding through them to eliminate prospective jurors who defense lawyers and prosecutors agree should not be allowed to serve.
Once that process is completed, the remaining jurors will be subject to oral questioning by the judge and lawyers for both sides. That is scheduled to begin Feb. 16.
When it does, many community leaders will follow the proceedings to determine whether African-American jurors are given the chance to serve. About 10% of the 333 prospective jurors who reported Wednesday are black.
Braun and other observers have expressed doubts about whether African-American jurors can be found to sit on this case because every black panelist questioned in the state case said it would be hard to consider the charges against the officers impartially.
Salzman, however, said he believes black jurors can be found to sit on the panel.
"It's totally offensive to imply that a person who is black cannot be fair," he said. "Race is not going to be an issue in picking this jury. The issue is finding 12 people who are fair."
Questioning the Jury Pool
Prospective jurors in the federal trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights received a 53-page questionnaire Wednesday with 148 questions intended to gauge whether they harbor views that would make it impossible for them to serve impartially. Here is a sampling:
Some people feel that the job police officers perform is so difficult and important that it is wrong to second-guess them by prosecuting them or punishing them for wrongdoing which occurs in the course of their job performance. Would you agree that it is wrong to prosecute and punish police officers?
Do you believe police officers make mistakes in the performance of their duties?
How do (you) feel about the way the criminal justice system is working in the United States?
What was your personal reaction to the verdicts in the state court trial?
What do you feel caused the civil unrest and riots that occurred in Los Angeles in April and May of 1992?
Did you or any member of your family suffer property damage or personal injury as a result of the riots?
Did you, or any friend or relative, participate in the civil unrest?
Do you fear the prospect of social unrest following a verdict in this case? If so, in what respect?
If you serve as a juror in this case, how would you anticipate being treated by your family, friends and acquaintances if the defendants are acquitted?
If you serve as a juror in this case, how would you anticipate being treated by your family, friends and acquaintances if the same defendants are found guilty?
How serious a problem do you think racial discrimination against blacks is in Southern California?
How often does it happen these days that a less qualified black person gets a job or a promotion, only because of affirmative action?
Have you ever been afraid of someone of another race?
How would you feel if a family member or relative married someone of a different race?