Rodney G. King was beaten by white policemen because he is black, his lawyer argued Wednesday, urging jurors to award him $15 million in a damage lawsuit he described as symbolic of the civil rights movement.
"Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X--these people were all in the civil rights movement voluntarily. (Rodney) King is a symbol involuntarily, but no less a symbol," said attorney Milton Grimes in his summation.
"This is a race case," Grimes said of the March 3, 1991, police beating that inflamed public anger and led to rioting in Los Angeles in 1992.
"I don't know how you can separate the Rodney King incident from black people, from African American people, from how we feel," Grimes said.
Summing up the city's case, Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent said the beating was not a racial matter and questioned whether a racial slur was really uttered during the beating.
"This is not a case about one word," he said. "This is not a case about racial slurs."
The arguments were delivered in daylong summations by attorneys, after which U.S. District Judge John G. Davies instructed jurors in the law and gave them the case for deliberation.
After jurors reach a compensatory damage figure, the second phase of the trial will address individual liability by officers and other defendants.
Vincent suggested that the beating would not have occurred if King had not been drunk and had not broken the law when he led officers on a high-speed chase. He said King was not stopped because he is black.
But Grimes noted that an audio expert had isolated what sounded like the word nigger on the soundtrack of the beating videotape.
"Close your eyes and listen to the tape," he implored jurors. "You can't close your eyes and pretend 'nigger' wasn't said on March 3, 1991, because you don't want to hear it."
Vincent said he could not hear the word on the soundtrack but suggested that if jurors do hear it, they should consider the feelings of the officers.
"If you make the judgment it was said, think about the emotion of those officers," Vincent said. "Think of Rodney King saying he wanted to run . . . and think about one word. What is one word?"
He suggested that a fair award would be $800,000, four times the medical costs incurred so far, but also offered a range of $500,000 to $1 million.
"You've got to keep emotion out of it," Vincent said. "This is a case where a person was stopped for violating the law. He was injured, and we will pay for those injuries. We want it to be fair to him and to the city of Los Angeles."
King's mother, Odessa, briefly disrupted Vincent's closing argument when he cited a piece of testimony by a witness who contradicted her.
"He lied," she called out, referring to the witness. Davies ordered her to leave. On her way out, she muttered: "It's all lies."
The city admitted liability for King's beating but rejected a demand for $9.6 million to settle the case. King refused an offer of $1.25 million.
Grimes said $15 million would be fair compensation for pain, suffering and permanent injuries.
King lives daily with the fear that he will develop more mental and physical problems, Grimes said.
Grimes told the jury that King was dehumanized by the officers. "They beat him like a dog and then they took his pride away," he said.
Grimes and Vincent were a study in contrasting styles. King's lawyer, wearing a bold red tie and handkerchief with a dark suit, was dramatic, speaking of ghosts haunting King and the history of black oppression. Vincent, a gray-haired man in a gray suit, was low-key and straightforward, concluding solemnly: "We trust you will do the right thing."
Four officers were charged with King's beating and acquitted of most charges in a state trial, sparking the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Two officers were later convicted of violating King's civil rights and sentenced to 30 months each in federal prison.