Juror Goes Public : Member of King Panel Becomes First to Fully Identify Himself

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grocery store clerk Martin De La Rosa is going public about his experience as Juror No. 12 in the federal Rodney G. King civil rights trial--he is the first juror to fully identify himself--but he is not looking to cash in on it personally.

De La Rosa wants to help raise a few bucks in memory of a woman he never met, Vera Lopez, who owned Mitla's, a popular little Mexican cafe in San Bernardino.

Everybody in town knows the place. She smiled at some of her customers, scolded others. De La Rosa ate there when he was a child. When Lopez died in 1984, the local Kiwanis Club set up a high school scholarship fund in her name. That's how popular Vera Lopez was.

De La Rosa's sister-in-law used to work at Mitla's, and leaned on him. Hey Marty, she said, you were a King juror. You must have some interesting stories to tell, things we haven't heard yet.

Indeed, De La Rosa said, about how jurors were afraid to ask the judge to explain his instructions better for fear they would embarrass themselves to the world. About how he was the last holdout in wanting to convict ex-Los Angeles Police Officer Timothy E. Wind, but finally admitted he could not prove the officer was malicious. And he was the only juror who had not seen the famous videotape of the King beating before the trial--but was easily swayed by it when he finally viewed it during the trial.

In an interview Thursday, De La Rosa talked about how the trial taught him a few things about life. About compassion. About altruism. "Things will never be the same for me," he said. "Something about me changed. My outlook towards things. I can't really pinpoint it."

A family friend, Michelle Vega, interjected: "He's more mature."

De La Rosa shrugged. "This is a chance for me to do some good for somebody else," he said.

De La Rosa will tell his story June 12 at the $30-a-head scholarship fund-raising dinner-dance at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino.

And he thinks his is an interesting story.

De La Rosa, 29, had gotten jury summonses before, but just ignored them. This time he didn't. Federal court? This could be more interesting, he thought. "And I'll have a couple of days off work!" he remembered thinking to himself. "Cool!"

How could it be, he was asked, that he hadn't seen the King video? Simple, he said. He doesn't watch TV.

"I don't like the media," he said. "It sucks. They pry into everything .

And they're not true. They're not precise."

But he told the attorneys he could be fair. They believed him. "The judge said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we have a jury,' and I thought, 'Wow!' "

He said the trial was tedious, especially because the jurors were not allowed to discuss the case as it proceeded. Oh, there were a few exceptions, he conceded.

"You know how Rodney King said, 'What's up, Killer?' (King testified that officers used that phrase to taunt him.) That night, we'd be joking back at the hotel, asking each other, 'Hey, what's up, Killer?' And the ladies would talk about how well (defense attorney Michael) Stone looked that day, in his tie and suspenders."

Life in the hotel was bittersweet. For 52 days, the jury was successfully shielded from the outside world--so much that even after the first couple of weeks De La Rosa said the good life--the fancy meals, the weekend outings--grew old. He said he yearned for a quarter-pounder.

They watched "Under Seige" and "Cocoon" on the hotel videotape player, but were denied "12 Angry Men"--a classic about a jury enmeshed in its own difficult deliberations; "Police Academy," a farce on police training, and "American Me," a graphic depiction of the dark side of life in Los Angeles' Latino community.

One of the bigger debates to envelop jurors, De La Rosa said, was not about the trial but was brought on one night after he swiped a Bible from a maid's cart, leafed through the Book of Genesis and was troubled by one of its passages.

"We debated for a couple of nights about what it meant," he said.

When trial deliberations finally began, jurors argued over whose notes were most accurate. "I told them, 'Hey, we don't have to agree on everything , as long as we say why we believe what we do.' "

Tempers flew over nit-picky items and debates got sidetracked by "hypotheticals," De La Rosa said. Once, he invited someone--anyone--to fight with him. No one accepted.

Amazingly, he said, no one talked about the repercussions of their verdicts, the potential for riots. "I'm sure everyone was thinking about it, but it was never discussed," he said.

In the end, acquittals and convictions were meted out on the weight of the video, he said. And in no time, jurors themselves were on TV. Some got paid.

Not De La Rosa. He went home and slept to battle the fatigue that had overcome him. "I wasn't ready to deal with the public," he said. "I didn't want to pretend to have to be nice to anyone."

He is not worried about going public, about repercussions, he said. "All I've heard is, 'You did the right thing.'

"But what is the right thing?" De La Rosa asked. "I simply did my job as a juror."

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