In a sharp rebuff to prosecutors, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury Monday served up a string of acquittals and scaled-down convictions against two men accused of attacking trucker Reginald O. Denny, whose beating stands as the most searing image of last year's riots.
Jurors, who were ordered by Judge John W. Ouderkirk to continue deliberating today on two deadlocked counts, returned just one felony conviction out of the 15 counts filed. Even that one felony--a mayhem conviction against 20-year-old Damian Monroe Williams for the assault on Denny--was the lesser of two options and carries a maximum prison term of eight years rather than a possible life sentence.
Williams was also convicted of four assaults, reduced by the jury from felonies to simple misdemeanors. His co-defendant, Henry Keith Watson, 29, was found guilty of a misdemeanor assault. But when it came to one of the most serious charges--the attempted murder of Denny--the jury acquitted Watson and split 11 to 1 on Williams, although it was unclear which way the panel was leaning.
Denny, whose beating was seen on live television after he unwittingly drove his 18-wheeler into the unrest at Florence and Normandie avenues on April 29, 1992, said he was in agreement with the jurors' decisions and did not want a retrial should they remain deadlocked on any charges.
"Let's get on with life," he told the television newsmagazine "Inside Edition."
But after a dramatic day of roller-coaster deliberations, during which the jury appeared three times before the judge, Ouderkirk sent them back to their hotel with instructions to try once more to come to agreement on the remaining issues.
"I'm not forcing you to do anything, but what I am going to do is order you back for further deliberations tomorrow in the hopes that looking at things in the light of a new day and perhaps with a good night's rest . . . you'll be able to reach a verdict on one or both counts," Ouderkirk told the jury. He added: "Don't let your pride get in the way of anything."
Monday's events were a stunning twist to the emotionally and racially charged case that some have viewed as the symbolic twin to the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney G. King. Even as the 10-woman, two-man jury continued to deliberate, its partial verdicts were being greeted with jubilation by the defendants' supporters and derision by those who believed that Watson and Williams should have been judged more harshly.
If the verdicts do not change, Williams, who was facing life in prison, could be sentenced to no more than 10 years. Watson, who has been behind bars for 17 months while awaiting trial, has already served more than the six months he could receive for a single misdemeanor conviction.
"Of course, there is no question that we won," exulted Williams' defense attorney, Edi M.O. Faal, who has said he will nonetheless appeal all convictions. "We are looking good. We are very happy."
He added that, in his opinion, "the prosecution was overzealous. We have been able to show a lack of credibility in some of their charges."
Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, explaining that he could not speak freely until the final verdicts are in, defended his deputies and applauded them for vigorously prosecuting the case.
"Some people are clearly disappointed with the verdicts," Garcetti said. "Some are pleased. We even have some who believe the verdicts do not amount to justice. But justice is not perfect."
Legal analysts explained that the taped beating of Denny, though horrifying, did little to address the defendants' state of mind--a critical element of the prosecution's case. With almost every verdict, but especially the mayhem charge, the jury showed that it was unwilling or unable to determine the alleged perpetrators' intent.
That became clear Monday morning as soon as the clerk began reading the verdicts to a hushed courtroom, which had been warned by Ouderkirk against any outburst, lest that influence the jury's deliberations on the remaining counts.
A succession of not guilty verdicts greeted Watson before the reading of his lone conviction for assaulting Denny. Watson, who had shaved his head and let his beard grow out, exchanged the stoic expression he has worn for most of the trial for a broad smile. His mother, Joyce, began to shake in silent sobs, then leaned into her husband's arms.
Four jurors, one of whom sniffled into a handkerchief, also appeared to have tears in their eyes.
Then came Williams' turn. Although he was found guilty of assaulting Alicia Maldonado, Jorge Gonzalez, Fidel Lopez and Takao Hirata, his supporters breathed a sigh of relief when the clerk announced that he had been found not guilty of aggravated mayhem, which would have required prosecutors to prove that he specifically intended to disfigure or disable Denny.
As his mother, Georgiana, leaned forward with her fists clenched, Williams, his head freshly shaved, turned and wrapped his arms around Faal.
After six acquittals had been delivered, along with six convictions, Ouderkirk asked the jurors if they wanted to continue deliberating on the remaining three counts. "We're deadlocked, your honor," said one juror, an older Latina, as the judge polled them individually. "We don't agree."
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Janet Moore noted that the jury, in its current form, had only deliberated 2 1/2 days. Ouderkirk sent them to lunch and told them to start again at 1:30 p.m.
At 2:30 p.m., the jury buzzed three times, indicating that it had reached a decision. One of the deadlocked counts against Williams--the robbery of Takao Hirata--was now an acquittal. The judge sent them back to deliberate one more time. About 3:20 p.m., they buzzed again.
"Hello again," Ouderkirk said. "You look like a tired group."
The jury forewoman announced that they were still deadlocked on two counts, including an attempted murder charge against Williams and a felony charge against Watson, for allegedly assaulting Larry Tarvin.
As the judge again polled them individually, Juror 324, one of just two men on the panel, came out shaking his head. "It's useless," said the juror, drawing chuckles from the courtroom. "There are 10 women in there."
After Ouderkirk sent them to the hotel where they are sequestered, Williams' mother--who had sprayed several reporters with a water bottle Monday morning--strolled down the hallway and proclaimed: "It's not over until the fat lady sings."
Shortly after the first verdicts were read about 11 a.m., Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Willie L. Williams went on television, urging the city to put the trial and the lingering anxieties from last year's riots in the past.
"Our judicial system is running its course," Riordan said. "Now is a time to look forward, not back--to look at what we can do for the future.
"I urge you to become a volunteer in the schools, the parks and the libraries; to bring a hot meal to a senior citizen you know; to visit a friend with AIDS; to organize your neighbors to make your neighborhood safer and cleaner," said the mayor, whose office received about 250 calls, almost all of them complaining that the defendants were treated too leniently.
Chief Williams, who called a tactical alert and put hundreds of additional officers on the streets as a hedge against possible unrest, said he was gratified by the calm that followed news of the verdicts.
"The reactions and the response of our community today have made me, as your new chief of police . . . very, very proud," Williams said.
At the home of defendant Damian Williams, around the corner from Florence and Normandie, police cars cruised by and helicopters buzzed the neighborhood.
But the dozen young men gathered there remained calm as word of the verdicts came down, as did the neighborhood. With bottles of juice, bags of chips and cans of Olde English 800 malt liquor, they exulted over the news, fielding congratulatory calls and welcoming a steady stream of well-wishers, who ranged from a congresswoman to the neighborhood plumber.
"It's a celebration," said Jimmy Williams, 22, a cousin of the defendant. Meanwhile, the defendant's brother, Mark Jackson, promised a massive block party when the last verdict is read.
"We have an opportunity for justice to prevail," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who stopped by to congratulate the group early in the afternoon. Her pleasure at the verdicts was echoed by Gwen Miller, whose son, Antoine Miller, is awaiting trial for his alleged role at Florence and Normandie.
"There is a God," said his mother, who had stopped by the Williams home with a load of "Free The LA 4" T-shirts.
At the Office of the Coalition Against Police Abuse, at 29th Street and Western Avenue, demonstrators who had been at the courthouse daily since the trial's start continued their protest with huge "Free the L.A. 4+" banners and placards saying "No more time, they did no crime."
In the mostly black and Latino neighborhood, rush-hour drivers honked intermittent support, but neighborhood residents seemed reluctant to join the march. Police cruised past periodically in unmarked cars.
The 20 or so demonstrators said they planned to continue their rally into the evening at a South-Central church. Refuse and Resist and the L.A. 4+ Defense Committee, two other organizations supporting the defendants, also joined the march.
While some residents were celebrating, others were seething, including a fair number of LAPD officers, who watched two former colleagues turn themselves into a federal prison last week for beating King.
"They bashed a man's head in, and now they're celebrating. Great," said one veteran police officer at Parker Center, the police headquarters.
At Transit Mixed Concrete Co. in Boyle Heights, where Denny worked, truck drivers reacted with similar outrage, calling the jury's decision "a big joke."
"They shouldn't have gotten away with it," said trucker Lenny Martinez. "They really almost killed that boy. I don't think he'll ever be the same."
Others expressed more sympathy for the jury's task. "I think a mob transforms people into things they aren't," said trucker Harvard Bonin. "But, hey, you can't go around beating people up."
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents much of the north San Fernando Valley, agreed.
"Condoning mob action against innocent victims is inexcusable and a threat to civilized society," he said. "When you have a person being photographed while his head is being used as a target with a brick and a fire extinguisher . . . it is great bodily harm."
In two upscale shopping districts--Beverly Center and Rodeo Drive--reaction to the verdicts ranged from disinterest to dismay.
"We were disappointed," said Shirley Schneider, a 73-year-old legal secretary, outside the Footlocker at the Beverly Center. Her companion, Lilian Morse, pronounced the verdicts terrible.
"It's a real wacky jury," Morse said. She added that she would be especially miffed if Watson were now to turn around and sue government officials for incarcerating him for longer than the sentence he might receive--a possibility she heard expressed on TV by a legal analyst.
"It's bad enough we fed him," Morse said. "Now we may have to pay for him too? It's unfair."
At Crenshaw Square, where several stores were burned out during last years riots, patrons shared many of those views.
"After the verdict was read, everyone was saying sarcastically that now the white people are going to riot," said Melton Bernard, a machinist, who was watching at Club Video, near Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards. "But after that kind of talk people generally agreed that Williams and Watson got off too easy."
Clem Johnson, a realtor, who was eating lunch at China Express near the same corner, said: "I'm from the old school and believe if you do the crime, you got to do the time. Well, Watson and Williams obviously did the crime. So they should have been convicted of the most serious charges."
Others were more sanguine. At Bang & Oloufson sound equipment, along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, employees who had spent the morning watching the verdicts on high-tech TV sets had switched to cartoons by afternoon. Salesclerk Bob Wallace said he was not surprised at the verdict but that he was puzzled by the jury's reasoning.
"It sounds like they said they're kind of guilty but not real guilty," he said. "That doesn't make sense."
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes much of South-Central Los Angeles, said it is inevitable some people will feel that the verdicts are unfair. But, she added, "I have not observed a racial breakdown in the reactions to the verdicts. Some people are pleased, others are not, among both black and white residents."
Although the outcome of the Denny case was once thought to carry the potential of another explosion, at City Hall the reaction among some officials was low-key and even uninformed. In fact, several City Council members were in San Francisco, attending a meeting of the League of California Cities.
One councilman, Marvin Braude, was in his office discussing the issue of domestic violence when the verdicts were read. "Tell me what happened," Braude asked a reporter late in the day. "Have there been any demonstrations or anything like that?"
Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, when asked for his comment on the verdicts, said: "I really haven't been following it day to day, so I can't say if I'm surprised or not. I haven't seen a lot of my constituents today so I don't know what their reaction is."
Councilman Nate Holden issued a statement calling the verdicts just, "although it will not make everybody happy."
Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said: "I think there is a sigh of relief that the majority of people feel. This anxiety and tension and confusion is tiring and it seems it's nearing an end--or so we hope."
Verdicts in the state case will not necessarily end the legal problems for Williams and Watson. When they were arrested last year, federal prosecutors said the attack on Denny could have violated federal as well as state law.
Denny was driving a sand and gravel truck at the time he was beaten. Because the truck was involved in interstate commerce, authorities said, those defendants could be charged with violating federal interstate commerce laws.
In fact, such charges were originally filed against Williams, Watson and Antoine Miller, but were withdrawn so that the state could proceed first with its case.
"The U.S. attorney's office concluded that the dismissal of the complaint would be in the interests of justice to ensure that nothing be done that would interfere with the state's pending case," then-U.S. Atty. Lourdes Baird said when the federal charges were withdrawn. "We will carefully monitor the results of the state case to determine whether any federal action may be necessary in the future."
Monday, U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers declined to comment on whether the federal government might enter the case. A spokesperson said Bowers would have no comment until after the state case is concluded.
From the beginning, community activists have complained that the two men were being made scapegoats for the rioting--a perception heightened by the highly publicized pre-dawn raid, led by a bulletproof-vest-clad Chief Daryl F. Gates, shortly before his retirement.
In a much-quoted exchange, Gates recalled that Williams told him: " 'Chief Gates, you're going,' And I said: 'Yes, Football, but you're going first.' " Williams later denied having any conversation with the former chief.
After that, it sometimes seemed as if every step in the case threatened to erupt in controversy.
During the five-week trial, which began with opening arguments Aug. 19, five jurors were excused--including one for talking about the case, two for illness and another for personal reasons. But none of the dismissals sparked as much debate as the removal of a fifth juror for what Ouderkirk called a failure to deliberate.
Reshuffled one more time, the jury spent 2 1/2 days deliberating before announcing Saturday that it had reached verdicts on some counts. The judge asked jurors to think about the case Sunday, then polled them Monday, when six said further deliberations might help them reach a decision.
To the surprise of legal analysts, the judge ordered the partial verdicts read, then told the jury to continue its deliberations.
Former Police Officer Don Jackson, a spokesman for the Williams family, said he was elated that the men were cleared of the most serious charges and praised fellow community activists for remaining vigilant against what he termed "trumped-up charges."
"We have gotten justice only because we have fought for justice," he said.
The Trial: A Chronology
Here are some key dates in the Reginald O. Denny beating trial.
* April 29: Denny and others passing through Florence and Normandie avenues are attacked in one of the opening acts of violence.
* May 12: Defendants Henry Keith Watson and Damian Monroe Williams are arrested in pre-dawn raids.
* Aug. 11: Williams fires his defense attorney for falsifying his resume. Edi M.O. Faal is appointed to replace him.
* Oct. 15: Judge John W. Ouderkirk, a former deputy district attorney and former police officer, is appointed to hear the case.
* Aug. 12: A jury of five Anglos, three African-Americans, three Latinos and an Asian-American is sworn in.
* Aug. 19: Trial begins with opening arguments.
* Aug. 25: Denny testifies for the first time, saying he cannot identify anyone who participated in the attack and has no recollection of anything that happened to him after a heavy object shattered the passenger window of his truck.
* Aug. 31: Gas station cashier Gabriel Quintana becomes the first witness to testify that Williams hit Denny on the head with a brick.
* Sept. 7: Los Angeles Police Officer Timothy McRath recognizes Williams from many previous encounters; identifies him on the videotape and tells of seeing him at the scene.
* Sept. 17: Prosecution rests after putting 40 witnesses on the stand and presenting 130 exhibits, including three eyewitnesses who identified Williams and Watson as Denny's assailants.
* Sept. 23: A plastic surgeon testifies that a brick shown on the videotape hitting Denny in the head did not cause the extensive injuries to his skull and face. Defense rests after calling nine witnesses.
* Sept. 28: Closing arguments: Defense says defendants were made into scapegoats for the riots. Prosecution calls them thugs.
* Sept. 30: The case is handed to the jury.
* Oct. 11: Judge replaces a black woman juror with an Asian female alternate after other jurors complain that the black woman was not comprehending proceedings.
* Oct. 12: A white male juror asks to be dismissed for personal reasons and is replaced by a black male. Deliberations begin for a third time and two counts that had been decided have to be discussed again.
* Oct. 18: The jury returns 13 verdicts, deadlocks on two others.
Compiled by Times researcher Cecilia Rasmussen
More Trial Coverage
* VICTIM FORGIVES--Reginald Denny, who almost lost his life in the riots, says he is "in total agreement" with the verdicts. A19
* SENTENCING FACTORS--Judge must wade through complex guidelines before deciding on the term for Damian Williams. A19
* L.A. VIEWPOINTS--Columnists Bill Boyarsky and Ron Harris describe the process of healing in the city and reaction to the verdicts. B1