More than two years after he was beaten and arrested by Los Angeles police officers, Rodney G. King at last took the witness stand Tuesday, telling a federal jury that he suffers from nightmares about the incident and that he “was just trying to stay alive” as officers struck him again and again.
“I was just trying to stay alive, sir, trying to stay alive,” King said in response to a question by Barry F. Kowalski, one of two lead prosecutors in the case. “They never gave me a chance to stay still.”
King, wearing a charcoal-gray, double-breasted suit, patiently fielded almost three hours of questions by prosecutors and defense attorneys representing the four police officers who are charged with violating his civil rights. King, nervous but poised, rarely raised his voice during his time on the stand, but he drew gasps from some members of the audience when he said that the officers taunted him with racial epithets as they struck him.
“As they were hitting me, they were chanting: ‘What’s up, killer? How you feeling, killer? What’s up, nigger?’ ” King said in a singsong voice. He added that he was rolling around on the ground at that point, trying to avoid the blows. “I wasn’t trying to hit any police officer. I was just trying to cover my face.”
The alleged racial remarks will be at the heart of defense attorneys’ efforts to discredit King in cross-examination today. King has previously accused the officers of using racial epithets, but he did not repeat that allegation when he testified before a federal grand jury last summer.
As if to head off that defense challenge, Kowalski asked King whether he was absolutely sure that the officers had used the word nigger .
“I’m not absolutely sure,” conceded King, who says his memory was impaired by the beating.
The defendants--Stacey C. Koon, Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno--listened impassively to King. Their lawyers began cross-examining him late Tuesday, as Ira Salzman and Michael P. Stone challenged details of King’s testimony and reminded jurors that King was violating his parole for an earlier offense when he drove his car after drinking heavily.
“Did you know that you were committing a crime that night?” Salzman asked.
“Yes, sir,” King responded.
“And you did it anyway?” Salzman said.
“Yes, sir,” King said.
King sometimes appeared confused by questions by defense lawyers, but he kept his composure. After some particularly pointed questions, King paused and stared pensively at the ceiling before answering.
Asked later how he thought his testimony had been received, King simply shrugged. He was whisked out of court, avoiding hundreds of reporters and more than two dozen television cameras set up outside the courthouse.
It was the first time King has told his story in a courtroom, and his testimony is at the emotional core of the federal case. Last year’s state trial of the same officers ended in not guilty verdicts on all but one count, touching off the worst urban riots this century.
In the earlier trial, prosecutors from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office worried about how King would perform on the stand, and ultimately decided not to call him as a witness--a decision that was roundly criticized after the verdicts.
Kowalski’s questioning of King lasted only 45 minutes, and the prosecutor’s delicate interrogation emphasized the unusual position that King occupies in the federal trial. Although King’s testimony has been widely anticipated, he has no expertise on the Constitution or the use of force, and thus cannot testify about the basis for the federal charges: That the four defendants willfully used unreasonable force in arresting King on March 3, 1991.
Federal prosecutors have planned for months to use King as a witness. During jury selection last month, they promised prospective jurors that they would hear from King this time.
After calling 22 other witnesses, prosecutors finally made good on that promise Tuesday afternoon. King entered the room flanked by FBI agents, and the sight of him silenced the packed courtroom.
Under questioning by Kowalski, King acknowledged that he was on parole the night of the incident, that he had been drinking and that he fled police officers who tried to pull him over when he had been speeding. But he denied that he had used PCP, and he insisted that once he stopped his Hyundai, he tried to comply with police commands.
“It was very confusing,” he said, adding that the commands were coming from several different officers at once. “They said: ‘Put your hands on the top of the car,’ and then, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Put your hands on the hood of the car.’ ”
King said he eventually laid down on the pavement as he was ordered, but that after he did, one of the officers struck him on the right side of the face with what he thought was a baton.
Pressing him on that point, Salzman asked King how he could be sure what was used to hit him.
“Who told you it was a baton?” Salzman asked. “Was it your lawyer?”
“No one had to tell me that,” King said. “I felt it.”
According to King, one of the officers grabbed his wrist and pulled it behind his back. “One of them applied pressure like he was trying to snap my wrist,” King said, stretching out his arm for jurors to see.
He said the twisting hurt him, and he yelled out in pain. When he repeated the yell in court Tuesday, one juror snapped her head back in surprise.
The pain caused him to flinch, King added, and the officers jumped off him. At that point, he said, another officer shot him with a Taser--an electrical device designed to immobilize a suspect.
“When I got shocked, it just felt like my blood was boiling inside me,” King said. “I just kind of laid down and took it. I was hoping it would go away shortly.”
According to King, one of the officers then said: “We’re going to kill you nigger. Run.”
King said that at that point, he jumped up off the pavement and tried to run. It is at that point that the videotape of the beating begins.
But while the officers argue that King was attacking Powell during that lunge, King said he was trying to run away, in the direction of Hansen Dam park, near where he had brought his car to a stop.
Powell struck King at that point, and King said the blow hit him in the head, knocking him back to the ground. King did not testify in detail about any blow after that one, and he admitted to Stone that “a lot of things are still blurry.”
“My whole body was hit,” he said. “It hurt like when you get up in the middle of the night and you jam your toe on a piece of metal. Every time I got hit, that’s what it felt like, like jamming your toe into a piece of metal.”
King reiterated at several points that he never threatened any of the officers and that he did nothing to provoke the beating. King added that the incident has left him badly scarred, physically and psychologically.
“I would have nightmares about being struck with a hard object,” King said, his voice growing soft. “I just couldn’t seem to get away from it in my sleep. Just, you know, real horrible nightmares over and over.”
King said he was so shaken by the beating and its aftermath that he can hardly bear to watch the videotape of the incident.
“It’s sickening to see it,” King said. “It makes me sick to my stomach to watch it.”
Although King’s appearance in court clearly captivated jurors, he has given a series of sometimes conflicting accounts about the incident.
Shortly after his arrest, for instance, King said he did not believe that the beating was racially motivated. Then, on July 9, 1991, he told investigators from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office that the officers taunted him with racial epithets as they struck and kicked him.
When he testified before the federal grand jury last year, King did not repeat that allegations. Asked whether the officers had said anything, King responded: “Yeah, while they were beating me, also he was saying ‘What’s up, killer? How you feeling now, killer? What’s up killer?’ Like that. That’s what scared me the most right there.”
Stone tried to pin King down on several of the discrepancies between his testimony Tuesday and his previous statements. Other defense lawyers said outside of court that as they continue questioning King today, they will focus intently on the conflicting statements regarding the officers’ alleged racial epithets.
“I think it’s good that he said it was on a racial basis,” said Harland W. Braun, who is Briseno’s lawyer. “His case is going to rise and fall on whether they used racial epithets.”
In court, Stone pressed King on some of his other contradictions. Stone noted, for instance, that King previously has denied that he was drinking on the night of the incident, and also has said that he did not flee police officers and that he was not speeding on the freeway.
King acknowledged that he had lied in previous statements because he did not want to go back to prison. But he insisted that he was telling the truth this time.
“I only want to tell the truth, sir,” he told Stone.
Stone was not satisfied. After the jurors were dismissed, he told U.S. District Judge John G. Davies: “This is not a person who has a faulty memory, but a person who has previously lied over and over and over again.”
After court, Stone acknowledged that King’s testimony had hurt the officers, but he added: “We’re coming back a little bit.”
Prosecutors laid a careful groundwork for King’s testimony, strategically calling two doctors to the stand just before King. One of those doctors, Charles Aronberg, detailed the fractures to King’s head and face, which included a broken cheekbone and eye socket and a damaged sinus.
In the sinus area, Aronberg said: “There were innumerable small fractures. In some areas the bones were reduced to a very fine powder, like sand.”
As Aronberg spoke, some jurors winced and touched their own cheeks.
In response to a question by one of the defense lawyers, Braun, Aronberg also bolstered one of the prosecution’s main contentions, testifying that he believes King’s most serious injuries were inflicted by baton blows to the head and face. Los Angeles Police Department policy does not allow intentional baton blows to the head unless the officer’s life is in danger, and evidence of baton strikes to King’s head forms the prosecution’s strongest basis for arguing that the officers violated King’s civil rights.
Defense lawyers have suggested that King’s facial injuries were caused by several face-first falls to the pavement, but Aronberg brusquely dismissed that argument.
“I know that someone suggested that they were the result of falls to the pavement and that’s out of the question,” Aronberg said. “I think that the injuries were caused by blows to the face and head by batons.”
While Aronberg’s testimony helped set the scene for bringing King to the stand, even more important in some ways was Dr. Stanley Cohen, a neurologist who examined King eight days after the beating.
Cohen told jurors that King suffered neurological damage, including memory loss. That testimony was crucial for prosecutors because it helps explain their version of why King made contradictory statements about the arrest.
Cohen said his examination revealed that King had suffered a concussion during the beating and had difficulty recalling specifics of the incident.
“He described having his eyes open, but his mind blank,” Cohen said. “Those were his exact words.”
Times staff writers Paul Lieberman and Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.