In Baltimore, verdict brings shock, despair

April 30, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer Staff writers Michael James and Roger Twigg contributed to this article.

The verdict in the Rodney King case hit here with the force of a body blow last night.

Black leaders, legal observers and people on the street -- both black and white -- were shocked by the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers in last year's beating of a black motorist, captured on a videotape.

Some warned that the acquittals could tear new rifts in the nation's tattered racial fabric.

"I think it's a disgrace," said Lawrence A. Bell III, a black 4th District councilman in Baltimore. "It says a great deal about the racial divisions that still exist in this country."

Local police officers, when contacted, refused to talk about the verdict for attribution.

Henry L. Belsky, an attorney for the city Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said that he was not prepared to make any statements based on a few "television snips" or to pass judgment on "one piece of evidence."

The California jury contained no blacks, he noted, and apparently was unswayed by the spectacle of white officers beating a black man.

"There's no question that the community in Los Angeles and throughout the world will look at the composition of the jury and will view this thing as racial," he said. "I think it's a great setback to racial harmony nationally."

Mr. Bell also said the decision highlighted a need for citizens' review boards with authority to weigh charges of police brutality, something he said he has advocated in Baltimore.

"Many people will be very bitter," he said of the verdict. "This continues to push the perception that black people are considered inferior and that law enforcement has the right . . . to use any kind of force."

J. Joseph Curran Jr., state attorney general, called the verdicts "devastating."

"The longer I think about it, the madder I get," he said. "As a member of the human race, I'm really outraged that what I saw on television happened."

He didn't rule out the possibility of a mitigating factor that outweighed the explicit videotape -- but he was skeptical.

"What could it be that would mitigate what we saw on that tape, I don't know," he said. "I can't imagine what it was."

William H. Murphy Jr., a black local attorney and former judge, said the decision in the case "reminds me once again that folks in this country still view me as a nigger. At any given time that could be me. I could be Rodney King.

"I'm still in shock. I cried when I heard the decision. How can we ever compete and aspire to high levels of leadership? It's one of the saddest days of my life as an adult."

Charles Jerome Ware, legal counsel for the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the verdict was "shocking."

"It sends a message to millions of people that cops don't have to follow the rules," said Mr. Ware. "It was a bad decision, not only for the public, but also for police officers, especially good police officers.

He said the key move in the case was moving the trial to Simi Valley, where there were 10 white jurors and no blacks.

"This is typical of the strange decision you'll get when you have white juries evaluating blacks, whether they are victims or defendants," Mr. Ware said. "As far as I'm concerned, all they had to do is play the videotape, and that alone would have convicted them, but they had more. They had an officer who broke the code of silence."

News of the verdicts spread swiftly. People on the streets of Baltimore last night were angry.

"I don't know what kind of signal this sends out, but to me it's very scary," said Craig Brown, 31, a black Baltimore resident who works on the loading dock at Mercy Hospital. "It was almost as though there was a foregone conclusion that they would be found guilty because of that tape alone.

"When you just see it right there, a guy lying on the ground being beaten and outnumbered, you say to yourself, 'They're guilty.' "

Chris Smith, a white 23-year-old from Towson who tends bar at Twins in downtown Baltimore, said that "most people I've talked to can't believe it. It's getting to be near impossible to send a police officer to jail. The only other thing they could have done was if they had pulled out a gun and just shot him."

"It's outrageous," said Linda Benn, 36, of West 40th Street, a white film and media instructor at the Johns Hopkins University. "How could you dispute that tape? I can't imagine what a juror could possibly see in the face of that tape that would enable them to acquit the officers."

Jim Butterfield, a 35-year-old white engineer visiting Baltimore from Cocoa Beach, Fla., said he was very surprised by the acquittal. But he added that he had "faith in the judicial system."

Mr. Butterfield said that while he had seen the videotape, "the jurors saw a lot more than the videotape."

"The police are sending out a message that they do what they want and nothing will happen to them," said Michael Williams, a 23-year-old black street vendor and Baltimore resident. "This makes people more leery of police. You won't go to them for help. It makes 911 a joke."

"It gives me a chill when I think that if I had been there, they'd have probably beaten me if I would have tried to help the guy," he added. Darlene Henderson, a black Towson resident, said she was convinced by the tape alone. "They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That picture was worth a million," she said.

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