Rampage, scores of fires follow acquittal Geography, prejudice swung verdict, experts say

L.A. ERUPTS AFTER VERDICT

April 30, 1992|By Henry Weinstein and Paul Lieberman | Henry Weinstein and Paul Lieberman,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating a black motorist was determined not so much by intricate courtroom strategy or any piece of evidence, but by geography and preconceived notions, legal experts said yesterday.

The case may have been decided the day Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg ordered the trial moved from Los Angeles to Simi Valley, an overwhelmingly white, conservative community 40 miles northwest of downtown that is long known as a popular home for law enforcement officers.

In another locale, jurors might have understood "the implications of being a black man in a car being chased by police," said a former Manhattan prosecutor, Ruth Jones.

But in Simi Valley, "the thought that these guys were just doing their job was not a leap of faith for them," said Ms. Jones, who monitored the trial for the Courtroom Television Network.

Several experts similarly said that the verdicts clearly reflected pre-existing attitudes -- support of police, fear of street crime, perhapsracism -- held by the jury rather than their reaction to evidence presented in the courtroom.

Most interviewed were stunned by the outcome. They had expected convictions of at least three officers because of the graphic videotape of the beating of the motorist, Rodney King, and the fact that one of the defendants, Theodore J. Briseno, broke ranks by saying that his colleagues acted "out of control."

But the verdicts also were "a very strong statement by the jury" in support of street police officers, said Ed Hayes, a former Bronx prosecutor.

Indeed, the only juror who discussed the verdict issued a ringing defense of the officers, saying: "They're policemen; they're not angels. They're out there to do a low-down dirty job."

Some questioned two prosecution decisions: not to call Mr. King as a witness and failure to oppose vigorously the introduction of "expert testimony" on whether the use of force was excessive.

"When you have experts testifying on both sides of a case, you create reasonable doubt," said Harvey Weitz, a New York attorney who also monitored the case for Courtroom Television Network. "The jurors say, 'Who am I to second-guess?' "

However, many legal observers said yesterday, those decisions didn't really matter in the end.

"Given this jury, they might have still acquitted the defendants and ordered King to jail," said Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor. "This was a jury of people who ran away from Los Angeles to get away from Rodney King. And they are the ones who sit in judgment."

Mr. Neuborne, former national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was startling to him that eight of the jury members had served in the military. "The jury certainly was not a cross-section of Los Angeles."

Last year, a state appeals court ordered the trial out of Los Angeles County because of "extensive and pervasive" media coverage and "intense" political fallout that showed no sign of abating. In the past, attempts to move numerous sensational cases, including those of Charles Manson and the Hillside Strangler, failed.

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