Punitive Damages From Police in King Beating Rejected : Courts: Jury that had awarded victim $3.8 million concludes officers should not pay. Verdict signals the end of a drama that has racked L.A. for more than three years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Signaling an end to one of the most wrenching chapters in Los Angeles history, the jury that had awarded Rodney King $3.8 million for his fateful police beating decided Wednesday to leave it at that, declining to impose punitive damages against the officers who beat him.

The Los Angeles federal court panel, which reached its verdict on the 11th day of deliberations, found that former LAPD policemen Laurence M. Powell and Stacey C. Koon had acted with malice in the 1991 beating of King.

But the jury concluded that the officers involved in the beating had been sufficiently punished and should not be forced to pay King as much as $15 million more--a penalty that King's lawyers had sought to deter similar acts in the future.

Although the racially mixed jury's verdict was unanimous, it was apparent from the brief comments of several panelists that it was not reached without acrimony.

The strongest indication came from the jury's only African American, who served alongside six whites, one Latino and one Filipino American.

"There was no justice here . . . no justice at all," the juror, a South Pasadena seamstress, told reporters before driving away. "It's purely black and white."

The verdict offered neither the retribution the King camp had hoped for nor the absolution sought by supporters of the police. Indeed, midway through the trial, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies removed one of the case's most symbolic flash points by dismissing the best known and wealthiest defendant, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.

By the time the three-man, six-woman jury announced Wednesday afternoon that their verdict was reached, reaction--in and outside the courtroom--was as factionalized and weary as the city that had formed the sprawling backdrop for the trial.

King was not present during the announcement of the verdict and could not be reached for comment. But his lawyers said they were outraged, despite what one called the "Solomon-type decision." Lead attorney Milton Grimes said: "How do you give a man $3,816,535.45 who was beaten and not consider the badness of the beaters?"

Grimes said he is considering an appeal of the decision to remove Gates as a defendant. He also said a reported weekend barbecue attended by three jurors could form the basis of an appeal if they discussed the case.

Of the six defendants facing the prospect of having to personally pay damages to King, only former Officer Timothy E. Wind was present in court as the verdict was read. He later spoke with reporters.

"This has been a long road I've traveled and I am very pleased with the decision," said Wind, who was a probationary police officer at the time of the beating and who says he is now destitute and unemployed. "It's taken a chunk out of my life, a big chunk."

Ira Salzman, Koon's attorney, called the verdict "entirely correct," adding that police "can now do their job and not fear this vindictive prosecution."

Powell's attorney, Michael P. Stone, agreed. "I'm just so happy it's over."

People throughout Los Angeles agreed that during the past three years the case has exacted a heavy toll. The most immediate reaction to the jury's decision--from the streets of South-Central to the police precincts of the San Fernando Valley--was mainly one of relief that the ordeal appears to be finally playing itself out.

"I'm really glad this is over," said Fletcher Jordan, a salesman at a sporting goods store at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. "It's been a long process that we've been going through. Everyone."

But beneath the sense of exhaustion, simmering resentments remained. In South-Central, where rioting decimated broad swaths of the city, UCLA student Trina White echoed the sentiments of many, saying that "once again, the police are getting off scot-free."

White and others were particularly upset that only taxpayers--and not police officers--will be paying King for the injuries he sustained. "Once again, the buck is being dropped to us and we have to pay," she said.

Although the awarding of substantial punitive damages would have been largely symbolic because the officers have few large assets, some felt that the jury should have sent a clearer message to the Police Department.

"It seems to me the purpose of punitive damages is to extract a level of responsibility from someone who perpetrated an act that was harmful to someone else," said Councilwoman Rita Walters. She said she found it "beyond the realm of understanding" that the jurors did not require the officers to pay even one dollar.

Urban League President John Mack said that he believes such a message of responsibility was necessary for Koon and Powell. "True, they are serving time, but they are doing so without showing any contrition. . . . You can't run around brutalizing every African American young man that you encounter."

For their part, many of the city's police officers took bittersweet comfort in seeing the defendants escape civil penalties.

"Those police officers did what they had to do to go home safe that night, and the citizens and the media destroyed this department for it," said Officer Jeff Hart of the LAPD's Foothill Division, where the four officers accused in the beating were once stationed.

Sgt. Leonard Ross, president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Assn., which represents African American police officers, said: 'He (King) got paid, the guys are in prison. This trial was just like shooting a dead person."

The verdict marked the denouement of a drama that has racked Los Angeles for more than three years. The grainy, videotaped image of the white policemen clubbing the cowering black motorist, aired first by a local television station, forced the city to confront long-simmering racial tensions and set the stage for the worst urban riots in modern history.

In the years that ensued, Los Angeles got a new mayor and a new police chief. The city's government underwent seismic shifts. And the lives of those involved on that traffic stop in Lake View Terrace would never be the same.

The King case prompted two criminal trials, one state and the other federal. The first yielded not guilty verdicts for the officers involved, triggering riots in which at least 53 people were killed. The second ended with the convictions of Koon and Powell for violating King's civil rights.

Then, two months ago, a third trial began, as King brought a civil suit against the city for monetary damages.

By the time of Wednesday's verdict, all four officers charged initially were unemployed, and King--a high school dropout and ex-con--was a household name and a millionaire.

Like the court proceedings before it, the civil trial shed little light on the particulars of the beating. But it offered a glimpse of the havoc wrought by the incident's aftermath.

The civil case was essentially a two-phase process in which King asked first for compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering and then for punitive assessments against the individual officers.

The first phase ended with an order from the jury that the city pay King $3.8 million in compensatory damages.

But the second part of the trial involved the much thornier issue of punishment for the individual officers. Jurors, who were able to use testimony from both phases of the trial, evaluated whether present and former officers used unreasonable force or acted in reckless disregard for King's constitutional rights, then determined whether those officers should have to compensate King from their own pockets.

King's lawyers had asked the jury to award between $3.8 million and $15 million in punitive damages from Koon, Powell, Wind, former Officer Theodore J. Briseno and current Officers Rolando Solano and Louis Turriaga.

Wind kicked and hit King with a baton; Briseno stomped him. Turriaga was accused of stepping on King while trying to handcuff him, and then he and Solano dragged King on the asphalt while moving him off the roadway.

But attorneys for defendants Koon, Powell, Wind and Briseno--the defendants in the state trial--argued that they are now impoverished and have suffered enough. Koon and Powell are serving 30 months in prison. Wind, a rookie probationary officer, was dismissed from the department, and Briseno was suspended from the force and is trying to get his job back.

"The officers have been victimized just like Rodney King," said Salzman, attorney for Koon, who was the supervisor in charge.

In court testimony, the officers detailed their suffering. They were outcasts among their peers, they told the jury; their careers and homes and life savings were gone. Koon and Powell said they now work for 12 cents an hour in prison to pay for their personal necessities.

Wind's wife broke down in tears on the stand when she described the toll the case has taken on her family.

Briseno took the rare step of countersuing King for a share of the award, arguing that King shoved him in the chest before the beating. The jury Wednesday agreed that Briseno had been struck but awarded him no damages.

To the end, the majority of the officers were unrepentant, saying they had acted within police procedure in their treatment of King.

Koon, wearing a prison-issue blue uniform and plastic sandals, reiterated his claim that he "tased" King and ordered others to beat the motorist because he was resisting arrest and appeared to be under the influence of PCP.

"I know I didn't do anything wrong," Koon said. "I acted in good faith. I've taken full responsibility and accountability for my actions."

Powell said he struck King numerous times with his metal baton because he feared for his safety, and because he was following Koon's orders.

When Powell was asked whether he thought he had done anything wrong, he snapped: "I not only don't think it, I know it."

Only Briseno has expressed remorse at the incident--a move that he said has made him a pariah among some police officers.

"For three years, I've put up with this, and it hurts," he said. "I look over at Larry and Stacey and I think, 'Is it only me that's admitted something wrong happened out there?' "

King admitted that he had had too much to drink that night and said he panicked when police began following his car because he was a parolee and did not want to go back to jail.

Disputing testimony from police who said that King led officers on a long chase, King said he tried to elude the patrol car for about 12 blocks, before deciding that it made little sense to run. King's lawyers said he tried to follow orders until one of the officers taunted him with racial slurs and told him to run for his life. When he tried to run, he said, he was savagely beaten.

"I was just so scared. I felt like I was going to die," King said on the stand.

When officers hogtied and dragged him to the side of the road, "I felt like a cow that was waiting to be slaughtered, like a piece of meat," he said.

King's attorneys argued that such treatment was business as usual for the LAPD, particularly against minorities. They introduced evidence from the Christopher Commission report to show that Gates was ultimately responsible for racism by the officers under his command.

But Davies dismissed Gates as a defendant, shocking King's lawyers. The judge said King's lawyers had failed to show that Gates should be held accountable for the beating. The controversial police chief retired in 1992 after the riots.

"Bad management is not enough," Davies said. "Allowing racism is not enough. Poor supervision is not enough."

The judge's decision took away the most affluent defendant in the case, leaving King with only the "little fish," said one of his attorneys. The original list of 15 defendants was eventually whittled down to six, with no one above the rank of Koon.

Since the incident, King has chalked up $200,000 in medical expenses for injuries including facial and leg fractures. He said he still suffers from flashbacks, dizziness, blurred vision and numbness in his face from multiple baton blows.

Defense attorneys said King brought many of his problems on himself, and they dug into his records to show that he was a troublemaker in school and a delinquent at an early age. They told the jury that he tested positive for drugs and had several run-ins with the law.

King has tried to turn his life around, his lawyers said, by seeking his high school diploma and spending more time with his wife and children. But wherever he goes, they say, he is constantly reminded of the beating. He wears a bulletproof vest and is accompanied by security guards--even to his son's Little League games.

"I feel like I'm a walking target," he told the jury.

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