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Watson Pleads Guilty to Felony Count in Riot Case : Denny trial: He receives probation for assault charge. Judge refuses to lower bail for Damian Williams.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Prosecutors captured a small measure of victory in the Reginald O. Denny beating trial Tuesday as Henry Keith Watson pleaded guilty to an unresolved felonious assault charge in exchange for a sentence of probation.

In addition, Judge John W. Ouderkirk refused to lower Damian Monroe Williams’ $580,000 bail, contending that he “is a danger to the community.” That virtually precludes any chance that Williams, who was convicted of mayhem for hitting Denny in the head with a brick, could be released before he is sentenced in December.

Watson, 29, pleaded guilty to a charge of assault with a deadly weapon on trucker Larry Tarvin, and as part of his plea bargain, he apologized to Tarvin and other victims.

“I’d just like to apologize to Mr. Tarvin, Mr. Denny, Mr. (Fidel) Lopez and all the other victims who were there at the intersection of Florence and Normandie on April 29, 1992,” Watson said.

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The jury deadlocked 9 to 3 for acquitting Watson of felonious assault on Tarvin, who was brutally beaten at the same intersection where Denny was attacked.

Watson’s attorney, Earl C. Broady Jr., said Watson wanted “to take the deal” rather than risk a second trial. “Why take a chance with a jury?” he said.

Watson admitted being at the intersection when Tarvin was pulled from his truck, kicked and beaten, and that he participated in that attack. Under the plea bargain announced Tuesday, Watson will receive probation that is scheduled to end in January, 1997. He also may be fined and ordered to complete an undetermined number of hours of community service when he is sentenced Dec. 7.

The jury found him guilty of misdemeanor assault for placing his foot on Denny’s neck, but the 17 months he served in County Jail awaiting trial is more than the maximum sentence of six months for that charge. He was released from jail without bail two weeks ago.

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Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said he was ready to retry Watson, but there was no guarantee that a new jury would have found him guilty.

“I know there will be people in the community who believe that the district attorney’s office should have let Mr. Watson walk out with no further criminal proceedings,” Garcetti said. “I cannot in good conscience accept that.

“I know, too, that there are others in the community who will be angry with me for being too lenient. Why isn’t this man going to prison? This is not a decision we made on the spur of the moment.”

Prosecutors were ready “to roll the dice, so to speak,” and retry Watson, Garcetti said. But “given the political nature of the case--and I hate to have to say that, but this case does have a political aspect to it--realistically, the chances of getting a conviction were not going to be great.”

Because Watson had no record of violent crime and had served the 17 months in jail, a conviction would have meant “he was probably going to spend a maximum of two additional years in state prison,” Garcetti said. “Is that worth it?”

In refusing to lower Williams’ bail to $35,000 as his attorneys had requested, Ouderkirk said Williams “is a danger to the community.”

“The evidence at trial demonstrates quite clearly that the defendant, when left to his own devices without fear of apprehension, engaged in a pattern of repeated violent, antisocial conduct against at least five helpless and defenseless people,” the judge said.

Ouderkirk’s decision triggered angry reaction from Williams’ supporters.

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“Is that justice for black people?” shouted Mollie Bell of the LA 4+ Defense Committee in the corridor outside Ouderkirk’s courtroom.

Williams, 20, originally was charged with 19 felonies and was not convicted on any of those charges, but was found guilty on a lesser charge of mayhem, Bell said.

“There is something very wrong with this criminal in justice system,” she said. “No one is going to stand for this.”

Williams was convicted of mayhem, a less serious felony than the original aggravated mayhem charge.

Williams’ attorney, Edi M. O. Faal, said Williams had been singled out for special treatment from the beginning of the case. “He continues to see this harsh special treatment,” Faal said. “This is a political ruling to keep him in jail. Quite frankly, I’m not that surprised at all. I was hoping the system was mature enough not to be vindictive.”

Faal said Williams expected that any motion filed on his behalf would be rejected. “I’ve not won one single motion that was decided by the judge,” Faal said. “Everything I’ve won, I’ve won by a jury.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence C. Morrison said Williams no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence. “He is a convicted felon,” Morrison said.

“This defendant can’t even get to court to appear for a simple traffic infraction,” Morrison said. “To reduce bail in this case would be an affront to the good and decent law-abiding citizens of this county, who have a right to expect fairness, justice and protection from the court.”

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Opposing the bail reduction was not done for vindictiveness, Morrison said. “It’s to comply with the law that the people ask the court to deny the defendants’ motion to reduce or reset bail.”

Williams and Watson were acquitted last month of attempted murder in the attack on Denny at Florence and Normandie as rioting broke out last year. Williams also was found not guilty of aggravated mayhem--intentionally disfiguring or disabling someone. Both charges carry maximum life sentence penalties.

Williams was convicted of felony mayhem for his role in the Denny beating and on four counts of misdemeanor assault for attacks on other victims at the intersection. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced.

Mayhem, which carries a maximum eight-year penalty, is “a crime of extreme violence and brutality” and is “listed right below murder and voluntary manslaughter” on the state’s roster of violent crimes, Ouderkirk said.

Garcetti said that unless he hears something new, his office plans to ask for the maximum prison sentence for Williams.

“The community wants to move on,” Garcetti said, adding that his office is “still striving for justice. Justice in these types of cases is always going to be imperfect.”

At the Williams home in South-Central, neighbors and friends dropped by expecting to celebrate Williams’ return home. But it was a party without the honored guest.

The disappointment was clear when Williams’ mother, Georgiana, returned from court without her son. She sat down on the living room sofa, took off her earrings and put on a comfortable pair of shoes. Then she urged the two dozen or so friends and neighbors not to despair.

“We still have something to celebrate,” she said. “He’s not going to jail for the rest of his life.”

The smell of freshly cooked barbecue drifted in the air in the neat one-story home on 71st Street. The family had spent two days preparing food for Williams’ homecoming. On the dining room table, Georgiana Williams had set out a sumptuous spread of barbecued ribs and chicken, potato salad and baked beans.

“We want everybody to have fun,” she said. “We were going to do this whether the news was good or bad.”


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