With a crowd of demonstrators outside and tight security in the courtroom, the trial of two men accused of beating trucker Reginald O. Denny at Florence and Normandie avenues got off to a rocky start Wednesday when less than half the number of expected potential jurors reported for selection.
The court had mailed 1,200 summonses to people living within a 20-mile radius of the Superior Court building downtown, ordering them to appear Wednesday. Only 118 appeared. The summons made no mention of the case involved.
By the end of the first day of screening, only 39 prospective jurors remained, the others being excused for a variety of personal and work-related reasons. The 39 were given a detailed 43-page questionnaire designed to find those with biases that could distort their judgment in the case.
Superior Court Judge John W. Ouderkirk said the court had expected about 250 potential jurors.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Janet Moore, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, said she is confident that a pool of about 100 prospective jurors, who will be questioned in court by attorneys, will be found over the next two days of screening.
She said she is encouraged that so far about half of those in the jury pool are ethnic minorities. "The jurors we saw today represented the racial makeup of the community," she said.
During a break in the proceedings, Watson's attorney, Earl C. Broady, said the possibility of a plea bargain to avoid a trial still exists. "It's always an open possibility," he said.
But Damian Monroe Williams' attorney, Edi M. O. Faal, quickly jumped in, saying that his client has no intention of avoiding trial. "Damian Williams is not interested in a plea bargain," he said.
Prosecutor Moore also was adamant that the case be taken to a full trial in which the evidence will be presented to the public. "This happens to be one of those cases that has to go to trial," she said. "These issues are important to all of us. . . . Let the community decide through the jury process."
The preliminary screening of jurors, which will continue today and Friday, marked the first official act of what has come to be known as the Denny beating trial.
Williams and Henry Keith Watson are charged with a variety of felony counts in connection with violence that erupted at Florence and Normandie avenues shortly after not guilty verdicts were announced in the first Rodney G. King beating trial in Simi Valley in April, 1992.
The most serious charge against the pair is the attempted murder of Denny, who was dragged from his truck and beaten as the incident was recorded by TV cameras in news helicopters.
In the months since the arrests, the emotion over the Denny beating case has somewhat diminished. Denny, speaking Wednesday on KABC radio, echoed the sense of weariness that is apparent in much of the city.
"It's just perhaps the end of a long battle not so much for me but for the gentlemen accused of committing whatever crime is being alleged, perhaps it will enable everybody, including those men, to pick up the pieces and move along with their lives," he said.
Despite the decreased emotions about the case, it remains controversial and potentially divisive.
As jurors walked into the courthouse Wednesday morning, they were greeted by a crowd of about 30 supporters of the so-called LA4+, a name used to describe the original seven men accused of attacking motorists at Florence and Normandie. Waving "Free the LA4+" signs, demonstrators demanded that charges against the defendants be dismissed.
"African-Americans are 12% of the general population but are over 50% of the prison population," said the Rev. M. Andrew Robinson-Gaither of the Faith United Methodist Church on West 108th Street, who participated in the demonstration. "My heart goes out to Reginald Denny . . . but the legal system has used the Reginald Denny case to further alienate young black men from the justice system."
The precautions taken for the case because of its controversial nature were apparent Wednesday as Ouderkirk greeted the first group of prospective jurors, each wearing numbered badges as identification to protect their identities.
"Please be known by that number and do not give us your name at any time," he said.
One by one, dozens of jurors stood and asked to be excused, primarily because their companies would not pay for a lengthy leave from work.
After the excused jurors left the courtroom, Ouderkirk briefly outlined the charges against Williams and Watson.
The jurors from the first session, who had not been told the nature of the trial for which they were being screened, sat impassively as Ouderkirk announced that it would be the Denny beating trial. After reading the more serious charges, Ouderkirk reminded the prospective jurors that Watson and Williams are innocent until proved guilty.
"The fact that the defendants are charged does not mean that it is more likely that they are guilty," he said. "It is evidence of nothing."
Ouderkirk acknowledged that most of the prospective jurors had probably heard of the case. But he said: "It is the court's goal to select jurors who will be sitting and listening to the evidence in the case and not concerned about outside issues."
The questionnaire, completed by the 39 remaining jurors, was not released to the press.