The Denny Trial’s Confusion: Is It Reality or Is It Tape? : Court: Everyone who sees the videotape of the Denny beating is not an eyewitness. More questions have been raised than answered by this technology.

<i> Charles L. Lindner, an attorney in Santa Monica, is past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Assn. </i>

The Reginal O. Denny-beating trial is the second 2-billion-eyewitness case spawned by the beating of Rodney G. King. Through the magic of videotape, in the courtroom of Judge John W. Ouderkirk, it is continuously April 29, 1992.

Of course, we are not all eyewitnesses. Nor does it appear with overwhelming certainty that Damien Monroe Williams or Henry Watson were there. But, many argue, “We have videotape"--as if the existence of the tape disposes of the question. Here, apparently, the existence of the videotape creates the questions.

If ever there was a defendant who would be at a serious disadvantage in a normal trial, it is Williams. Picked out by two eyewitnesses directly, the anticipated protests of his defense attorneys would be quickly minimized by an average jury in an average trial. By all the stereotypes inbred into our culture, Williams, with his scowling appearance, looks like the guy Spike Lee has made millions of dollars warning us about. But can we be certain that he is the guy who did it?

As his and Watson’s trial has proceeded, the videotape has raised more ques-tions than it has answered. Indeed, as the prosecution’s case wound down last week, the district attorney was reprising Lady Macbeth (“Out, out damned spot!”) because of the mysterious appearance and disappearance of a large black smudge on the back of a white T-shirt worn by a Denny assailant.


So far, as the result of the black smudge, the prosecution has told us that Williams either a) went home in the middle of the Florence-Normandie rioting to clean up, or b) was on that balmy, late April night, for some mysterious reason, wearing two white T-shirts, one on top of the other.

Again, it is the videotape that seems to weaken rather than enhance the prosecution’s case. Even had an eyewitness observed the no smudge-smudge problem, it could have been dismissed or glossed over. But because of the videotaped absence-presence-absence of the smudge, what would have been swept under the rug takes on a Sherlockian importance, the event that reveals that the official version to be wrong.

The prosecution entered into evidence a white T-shirt, blue bandanna and “Roy Orbison” black sunglasses seized from Williams’ home and pointed out that the assailant in the videotape wore a white T-shirt, blue kerchief and black sunglasses. Curiously, that most prized of all adolescent possessions--a pair of expensive tennis shoes--observed in the videotape, enhanced by a computer and identified in court by the manufacturer’s representative (only 10,000 pairs sold in Southern California), was not found when Williams’ house was searched. So does the videotape add or take away from the accuracy of the identifications?

Every day, judges, jurors and lawyers walk out of court wishing they could go back in time and, like the proverbial fly on the wall, watch the murder, robbery or whatever before them and find out what really happened.


This same fantasy constantly grips trial participants, because most criminal trials turn on three issues: the charged crime didn’t happen (or at least not the way the cops say); it happened, but the wrong person is charged, or it happened, the defendant did it, but there were extenuating circumstances--e.g., self-defense. Williams and Watson say, “Not us.”

Our penchant for vicarious participation through the TV screen is insatiable. Not only did Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, we all walked on the moon. When the first open-heart surgery was televised, we all stood in the operating room.

But the problem is confusing recording with reality. Video recording of reality from a single, two-dimensional vantage point cannot substitute for the reality itself.

Videotape can provide us with the experience of a hurricane without wind, a sky dive without vertigo or a police shoot-out without threat to living-room viewers. Real-life experience itself becomes bastardized to the verisimilitude of an ersatz reality created in the camera lens. While videotape is helpful, it is not reality. The two should not be confused.


Last week, Los Angeles Police Department Detective Arthur Daedelow complained from the witness stand that the police investigation was hampered by zero cooperation from the press. However, unlike the police, the press obviously was at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, doing its job.

This was not the infamous Kitty Genovese murder that led to the story, “54 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” This is the flip-side headline: “2 Billion see Deadly Assault on TV. Police Refuse to Help.”

We are stuck with relying on the videotape from Florence and Normandie because the LAPD could not deal with the reality of Florence and Normandie. The issue of “Who did it?” would not be an issue. The arrests would have been made at the scene instead of being fodder for American’s grizzliest home videos.

Had the cops responded to the crisis at Florence and Normandie, we would not be in the awkward position of possibly having an innocent man convicted or a guilty man go free based on a helicopter pilot’s videotape.


Reality. What a concept.*