Defense in King Case Clashes With Officer : Trial: Lawyers seek to undermine expert on use of force by attacking his experience and questioning the LAPD’s training policies.
Defense lawyers for the four officers accused of violating Rodney G. King’s civil rights clashed sharply with a key prosecution witness Thursday, attempting to erode his credibility as an expert on the use of force and to demonstrate that the officers acted reasonably.
The day of testimony in Los Angeles federal court was consumed by cross-examination of Los Angeles Police Sgt. Mark John Conta, who had testified on behalf of the prosecution that the officers acted in clear violation of LAPD policy when they beat King, who had led them on a late-night, high-speed chase two years ago.
For most of the day, defense attorney Michael P. Stone dominated the questioning, attacking the credentials and experience of Conta, who is the Police Department’s chief training officer and the prosecution’s principal expert on use of force.
Stone grilled Conta on his assertions Wednesday that the officers should have used the so-called swarm technique, in which four or five officers jump on an individual. While some officers grasp a suspect’s arms and legs, the others handcuff him.
On Thursday, under questioning by Stone, who represents Officer Laurence M. Powell, Conta conceded that he did not know whether the accused officers were trained in the technique at the Police Academy.
“So you’re holding an officer responsible for not using techniques that you don’t even know if they were taught?” Stone asked.
“I would not allow someone to leave the academy if he didn’t know these techniques,” answered Conta, who was not the department’s training chief when three of the four officers on trial graduated from the academy.
Powell, along with Officers Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno, is charged with violating King’s civil rights by willfully using excessive force. Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, the senior officer at the scene, is charged with allowing the unlawful assault to take place.
Stone also attempted to show through his questions that the officers acted lawfully and within LAPD policy, suggesting that King acted aggressively and that the officers had reason to fear him.
Asked Stone: “If a suspect shows a willingness, intent and ability to strike an officer,” does the officer have the right to strike him with a baton?
“Yes,” Conta responded.
Stone also tried to hammer home the impression that Conta did not understand what was going through Powell’s mind and stressed that the officers had to make split-second decisions under considerable stress. Stone suggested that Conta had the luxury of repeatedly studying the event on videotape.
Conta said his knowledge of Powell’s state of mind came from the officer’s testimony in state court last year, when he said “Rodney King was under the influence of PCP, that he was in fear and that he wanted to control him.”
But no matter what those initial fears, Conta said, Powell should have stopped striking King at a certain point. Stone, refusing to give up the line of questioning, then said: “Doesn’t it come down to you don’t care” what was in Powell’s head?
“I care very much,” Conta responded. He said Powell’s arrest report did not reflect perceptions of fear that the officer later expressed. Conta also asserted that even though Powell was not the officer in charge he had a duty to assess the situation and to make a determination when the use of force should have been reduced. With that, Stone asked whether Powell should have ignored Koon, his superior, if he believed that King posed no further threat.
“You better believe it,” Conta answered.
Conta testified Wednesday that Powell was justified in striking King early in the incident after King charged in his direction. Conta did not blame Powell or Wind for hitting and kicking King during the first 32 seconds of the famous 81-second videotape of the incident because King was standing or trying to stand and posed a potential threat to them.
But from that point on, Conta said Wednesday, every baton blow and kick violated LAPD policy. On Thursday, under heavy cross-examination, he steadfastly maintained that position.
Stone attempted to show through some questions that if the officers had not acted as they did, the situation could have worsened and that they would have been forced to shoot King.
Although Conta did not agree with that scenario, he did say it was possible that the officers could have effectively used a chokehold to subdue King if it had not been banned in 1982 after several people died from its use.
The defense lawyers injected the carotid hold issue as they did in the Simi Valley trial last year in an effort to show that the officers had been stripped of a critical technique that might have made the clubbing of King unnecessary.
Some of Stone’s questions also were designed to show that the LAPD provided inadequate training for officers in how to deal with an uncooperative suspect. Conta said that when officers are trained in the use of the 24-inch batons that were used on King their target is a stationary ax handle.
“How about a moving subject, who’s combative and trying to get at you, what kind of training is there?” Stone asked.
“They get none,” Conta acknowledged.
One particularly sharp clash occurred when Stone suggested that Conta trained officers to use their batons to “break bones.”
Conta responded: “I never teach to break bones. . . . I teach them to use it for control.”
Outside the courtroom Thursday, Koon called Conta “a whore” who lacked expertise and accused him of seeking to gain a promotion.
Also during court breaks, the defense lawyers speculated that Stone’s questions were having an impact on the jurors, who the day before had been listening intently to Conta’s testimony. Koon’s attorney, Ira Salzman, described Conta as “a buffoon” and “a disgrace to his badge.” Briseno’s lawyer, Harland W. Braun, contended that Stone’s questioning had demolished Conta. “He’s great,” Braun said of Stone. “He’s my hero.”
But Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, who is observing the trial, said Conta had held up well. “I don’t think the defense has at all destroyed his credibility,” said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. She described the 22-year LAPD veteran as an “effective witness who’s been out on the street as a policeman” and appeared to have made a favorable impression on the jury.
Cross-examination of Conta is scheduled to resume today.
Times staff writer Jim Newton contributed to this story.