Rough and Tumble Trial in Court of Public Opinion : King case: Media feed off comments outside courtroom as officers and their attorneys try to shape perceptions.


There are two Rodney G. King civil rights trials taking place at the Edward R. Roybal federal courthouse.

One is being held in the stately eighth-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge John G. Davies. This proceeding is governed by exacting rules of evidence designed to prohibit the admission of information that is irrelevant, hearsay or likely to unfairly inflame the passions of the jury.

The other trial is a rough and tumble affair, a series of news conferences during breaks in the formal proceedings, some in the hallways of the Roybal building, most in the large plaza outside.

This trial--run by the media, the defense lawyers and their police officer clients--is not restrained by rules. It is punctuated by name-calling, dueling agendas and a bare modicum of civility. Last week, during King's testimony, there were about two dozen television cameras and more than 100 reporters jockeying for position as they waited for the appearance of defense lawyers.

The widely broadcast news conferences have become increasingly unruly, drawing a variety of non-media types who have heckled defense lawyers. After a sharp exchange between one of the lawyers and an activist on Thursday, yellow tape was stretched around the media area to keep the throngs at a safe distance.

The tenor of these free-for-alls has gotten downright nasty.

Sgt. Stacey C. Koon called the Los Angeles Police Department's use of force expert "a whore." Officer Laurence M. Powell launched his own torpedo. He said any portrayal of King as a symbol of injustice against blacks "is like saying Charles Manson is a symbol of justice in America."

On Thursday, the harangues continued. Officer Theodore J. Briseno's attorney said one of the federal prosecutors had "sold his soul" by allowing King to testify that officers had shouted "nigger" even though King later admitted that he was uncertain whether the highly charged word had been used.

Such out-of-court outbursts were mostly absent from the officers' first trial in Simi Valley. With the jurors in the state case free to go home each day, the judge ordered defense lawyers to confine their oratory to the courtroom after an initial flurry of news conferences. But the judge in the federal case would have little legal standing to impose a gag order because this time the jury is sequestered, meaning inflammatory remarks are less likely to sway the trial's outcome.

With tensions running so high around the case, there is considerable concern that the personal attacks could inflame emotions.

Prosecutor Barry Kowalski advanced that argument in asking Davies to clamp down on the defense lawyers and their clients after Koon's "whore" comment.

"Counsel in this case have got to be careful about what they say in public," Kowalski said. "In this case, in this city, at this time, counsel needs to take special care."

Davies said he heard the remarks on the radio and called them "inappropriate, if not defamatory." He urged the defense lawyers to be "circumspect."

But Briseno's lawyer, Harland W. Braun, said prosecutors should spend more time worrying about what he called the inflammatory impact of their tactics--such as encouraging King to testify about racial epithets that the four accused officers allegedly hurled at him.

Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press has covered major trials around the country for the past 25 years and has seen plenty of "spin lawyering" in her day. But the police officers' lawyers, she said, "are much more outspoken than in any other case I've covered."

She said she usually does not attend news conferences because her primary goal is to bring readers into the courtroom by reporting what the jurors are hearing. But Deutsch said last week she was forced to change her style.

"I finally wound up having to go outside and use some of the comments because they came up in the courtroom," she said.

The King case is hardly the first instance in which lawyers have waged war on the steps of a courthouse. USC law professor Susan Estrich said it is now "conventional wisdom" in legal circles that there is something to be gained by trying the case in the media as well as in the courtroom, especially in high-profile clashes such as this one.

The thinking is that a lawyer should never miss an opportunity--in or out of court--to create favorable opinion about a client while casting the prosecution as persecutors.

True or not, there is a wide perception in legal circles that auto maker John Z. DeLorean's acquittal on drug charges was partly the result of the daily news conferences held by his lawyers, Howard Weitzman and Donald Re, who succeeded in putting the government on the defensive.

To be sure, in the King case, most of the statements by the lawyers and officers have been relatively tame responses to questions about strategy, testimony and their impressions of the impact a witness might have made. But it is the zingers, the irresistible sound bites, that many believe are at the heart of the game.

"Strategy-wise, (the defense lawyers are) trying to create a distraction for the prosecutors," said Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson, who has been observing the trial. "The more the prosecutors are worried about what is happening outside the courtroom the less they're concentrating on what's going on inside."

Lawyers for the defendants deny that they are trying to affect the verdict. Rather, they say they feel obligated to do anything they can to help clear their clients' names with the public, as well as with the jury.

"The media coverage and the general public perception is horribly biased," said Koon's lawyer, Ira Salzman. "Polls show my client is presumed guilty, despite the fact that he was found not guilty in the Simi Valley trial last year."

Powell and Koon said they are speaking out to balance what they consider skewed press coverage. Koon said that if the press had done a better job of reporting the first trial, then the public would have been better prepared for the verdicts. "If you act responsibly this time there won't be another riot," he told a reporter.

Similarly, Powell's lawyer, Michael P. Stone, said he is speaking out to prepare the public for the acquittals he anticipates. "I'm afraid expectations of a conviction will rise like before" because of media coverage, he said. "There seems to be a slant toward the officers were wrong, not Rodney King was wrong."

Defense lawyer Braun said his tactics are affected because the problems of his client, Briseno, will not be over even if he is acquitted because he still faces internal Police Department charges. "The Police Department is very political," Braun said. "If Ted can look better to the public, it will help."

Earlier this month, Braun held a news conference with Briseno and a polygraph expert during which they released the results of a lie detector test, purportedly showing that Briseno was truthful when he said that he stepped on King's back to protect him. The next morning, Davies, in response to a motion by federal prosecutors, followed longstanding precedents and ruled the test inadmissible.

But Braun said that despite his setback in court, a key goal had been achieved. "People have been calling Ted a liar for the last two years. He wanted the word out that he passed the test as much for self-respect as for admissibility."

Braun also said his decision to take an aggressive public stance stemmed in part from his perception that he had triumphed in the past by engaging prosecutors in verbal warfare outside the courtroom. In particular, he cited the celebrated 1987 "Twilight Zone" case, in which he successfully represented film producer George Folsey, one of five defendants accused of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors killed by a helicopter during the late-night filming of a battle scene.

He said that the defense had lured Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino into "insane total warfare" during frequent histrionic news conferences. Braun said the "carnival-like" atmosphere helped to deflect attention from the defendants, focusing the spotlight on D'Agostino's tactics.

But this time, prosecutors are not going for the bait. They have declined comment outside the courtroom.

"It is unprofessional and counterproductive to engage in a daily harangue on the courthouse steps," said U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers, responding on behalf of the prosecuting attorneys. "It is unfortunate that inflammatory statements that would be inadmissible and even sanctionable in the context of the trial itself somehow garner the rapt attention of the media at the end of each trial day."

Levenson and other observers said they believe that some of the prosecutors' reticence to comment outside the courtroom is because they are at much greater risk of endangering their legal position with a misstatement than are defense lawyers.

Virtually all reporters covering the King trial say the outside news conferences would play a less significant role if a video camera was allowed in the courtroom, enabling television stations to show film of the testimony.

Because cameras are prohibited in federal court, the news conferences have, in a sense, supplanted the extensive live coverage of the first trial. As a result, the defense has been able to dominate the television images to a greater degree.

Still, UCLA criminal law professor Peter Arenella questions whether any of the posturing and rhetoric will, in the end, make any difference.

"I don't believe the general public will change their own preconceptions of guilt or innocence, formed by viewing the videotape, because of the attempts of the defense camp and others to woo them to their side," Arenella said.

Times staff writer Jim Newton contributed to this article.

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