Aftermath of trial makes life rough for Calif. jurors Some feel remorse, some get threats, few regret decisions

May 10, 1992|By Robert Reinhold | Robert Reinhold,New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- More than a week after they delivered the verdict that stunned the nation and set South Central Los Angeles aflame, the jurors who acquitted the four police officers charged for beating Rodney G. King are variously frightened, defensive, agonized by second thoughts or firmly resolved that they did the right thing.

"My life is beyond hell. I cannot take any more," said Alice Debord, a 43-year-old college grounds worker. Standing outside her modest home in the verdant remote hills near Ojai, a 75-mile drive from riot-scarred Los Angeles, she looked shaken as she recalled getting death threats.

Other jurors have left their homes in various parts of Ventura County, a mountainous area northwest of Los Angeles that stretches from the far suburbs of the city, like Simi Valley, through vast citrus groves and strawberry fields, through oil fields near the coast in Ventura and over lush horse country in the mountains near the resort of Ojai.

The courts ordered the trial transferred there on the ground that the Los Angeles police officers could not get a fair trial in the city.

According to Lt. Robert Klamser of the Simi Valley Police, his department and the Ventura County Sheriff's Department have been investigating threats to kill jurors and to burn and vandalize their homes.

"We're working with the jurors on a whole range of things to protect their safety," he said. "Even alternate jurors and prospective jurors who never sat on the panel at all have been threatened."

If the jury, whose 12 members included 10 whites, one Asian and one Hispanic woman but no blacks, was vastly different from polyglot Los Angeles, it was quite typical of suburban and rural Ventura County, where the problems of the city seem continents away.

Judging by the size and condition of their homes, none of the jurors appeared to be wealthy; a couple seemed to live close to poverty. Five were registered as Democrats, five as Republicans, one independent, one apparently not registered.

None had voted in any election since November 1990. Three are relatives of police officers. Three are members of National Rifle Association.

In retrospect, it was about the worst possible jury for the prosecution of police officers.

At the time of jury selection, the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Terry L. White, did not use up all of his peremptory challenges. The district attorney's office said at the time that they did not have great hope of obtaining a more favorable panel than those selected, judging from the written statements provided by the 264 potential jurors in the jury pool.

Only six of them were black; only 2 percent of the population of Ventura County is black. The county is also home to many law enforcement officers.

In the first few days after the verdict, the jurors were almost entirely unavailable for interviews. Apart from Ms. Debord, the New York Times obtained no interviews with the jurors. But in recent days they have begun to break their initial pact of silence.

From scattered interviews with other publications and television stations, it appears that a large majority was inclined to acquit almost from the beginning of deliberations, and those members overwhelmed the three or four dissidents who briefly held out for at least one guilty verdict against one of the defendants, Lawrence Powell.

Officer Powell was the officer who could be seen on the amateur videotape that led to the prosecution repeatedly striking the prone Mr. King with his baton.

The holdout of the minority resulted in a hung jury on this one count, meaning that Officer Powell could eventually be retried for it.

"It's like they wanted to see what they wanted to see," said one of the minority, Virginia B. Loya, in an interview with the Associated Press. "They already had their minds made up."

Ms. Loya, a hospital housekeeper in Ventura, said that she fasted, wept and prayed alone in her room at the sequestered jury's hotel during the deliberations, hoping to bring one or two more jurors to her point of view. She said some of those arguing for acquittal mocked her when she asked to see the videotape again. She said she followed the lead of other jurors who had seen previous jury service.

But Anna Whiting, a printer who lives near Ventura, told the Cable News Network on Thursday that she would not have voted guilty under any circumstances.

She said she regretted "the aftermath of how all these riots came about," but added that she did not feel responsible for other people's actions.

"I couldn't have voted any other way than I did," she said in a televised interview during which her face was obscured by shadows and her voice was disguised electronically.

The jury's behavior is being closely studied as the Los Angeles district attorney's office tries to decide whether to retry the single count against Officer Powell that the jury left undecided and whether the case should be retried in Ventura County.

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