A passenger in Rodney G. King’s car also was struck by police March 3, 1991, federal prosecutors alleged Friday, adding that they hope to introduce evidence of the second beating in the trial of four officers charged with violating King’s civil rights.
With the jury in the federal trial out of the room, Barry F. Kowalski, one of two lead prosecutors in the case, said Freddie Helms was hit while in custody and had to be treated at a hospital for a head wound the next day. The allegation had never been raised in court before and was not introduced during the officers’ state trial.
As evidence of the blow to Helms, Kowalski presented a 23-minute videotape shot by an off-duty security guard that begins just after King was beaten and handcuffed. Near the end of that tape, Helms is seen walking across the street, and prosecutors say he can be heard saying: “They thumped me on the head.”
Helms died in a traffic accident shortly after the King beating, but Kowalski said the prosecution is prepared to call Helms’ mother to testify that she took her son to the hospital the morning after the incident for treatment of a head wound. Kowalski said the government also is ready to call the physician who treated Helms.
Under normal circumstances, such evidence would be inadmissible in a trial because the prosecution has no witnesses who can say for sure who hit Helms, and none of the four defendants are charged with committing any crime against him. As a result, the evidence could lead jurors to unfairly blame the four defendants for striking Helms without requiring the prosecution to prove that one of them did.
Citing those concerns, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies said he was “disinclined” to allow prosecutors to introduce evidence about the injuries that Helms allegedly suffered. But he postponed a final decision, saying he will rule on the issue Monday.
Kowalski conceded that the evidence normally might be inadmissible, but he said that a comment by one of the defense lawyers during opening statements last week opened the door for the prosecution to introduce it.
Michael P. Stone, the lawyer for Officer Laurence M. Powell, told jurors in his opening statement that King’s passengers that night had been ordered to raise their hands and get down to the pavement.
“And indeed, Mr. Bryant Allen and the passenger in the front seat, Freddie Helms, did just that,” Stone said in his opening statement. “Without incident, they were taken into custody.”
Kowalski said Stone’s comments gave the impression that King was beaten because he resisted arrest, and that his passengers were not beaten because they complied. Kowalski said the prosecution should be allowed to rebut that assertion.
Kowalski’s move appeared to take the defense team by surprise. Stone flushed deep red as prosecutors argued their case before Davies, and he and other defense lawyers jumped up to object.
Afterward, Stone conceded that he was surprised by the development, but he and other lawyers for the officers predicted that the evidence of Helms’ injuries would not be allowed into evidence.
“This doesn’t point to any of these four defendants,” said Harland W. Braun, the lawyer for Officer Theodore J. Briseno. “This just shows how desperate (the prosecutors) are.”
The Helms issue capped a day that was otherwise dominated by cross-examination of a key prosecution witness, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Mark John Conta, who concluded three days on the stand.
During that time, Conta delivered powerful testimony against the defendants, firmly asserting time after time that they violated Police Department policy when they continued to strike and kick King after he was knocked to the ground.
Under cross-examination, Conta grew increasingly testy with defense lawyers, yielding on a few points important to the officers but holding the line on his central contention: that the defendants were within Police Department guidelines during the opening moments of the King beating but crossed the line when they beat, kicked and stomped King while he was on the ground and helpless.
Through more than two days of cross-examination, Conta did not retreat from that opinion, but he conceded Friday that violations of police policy do not always mean that excessive force was used.
In addition, Conta acknowledged that Briseno appeared to stomp King to control him so that he could be handcuffed.
Conta made that statement after Braun confronted him with a tape of an interview he gave to a police defense representative May 18, 1991. Nevertheless, Conta said the action was a violation of police policy.
“Isn’t it your real opinion that the stomp was for the purpose of control?” Braun asked, after slapping the tape cassette on the lectern. “The intention at that point was to handcuff the suspect?”
Prosecutors objected to the question, but the judge allowed Braun to continue questioning Conta on the topic, and Conta then agreed that the stomp was meant to “control” King.
Braun said that admission from a prosecution expert showed that the stomp was not an intentional use of unreasonable force, the basis for the charges against his client. Braun said later that Conta had “testified like a robot,” and that his credibility had been damaged by the long cross-examination.
In other developments Friday, prosecutors produced two police witnesses who testified about computer and radio messages sent by Powell and Sgt. Stacey C. Koon just after the beating. A computer message by Koon described the King incident as a “big time” use of force.
In a set of messages that he sent to another officer, Powell said: “Oops . . . I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time. . . . I think he was dusted. Many broken bones later, after the pursuit.”