Outcome in King case is tough call Deliberations set to enter a sixth day

April 15, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- There is the often conflicting testimony of 61 witnesses spread across six weeks.

There are police reports, radio transmissions and computer messages.

And of course, there is the 81-second videotape, which was recorded in the early-morning hours of March 3, 1991, by a plumber named George Holliday.

But even with that tape, the Rodney G. King civil rights trial defies a rush to judgment.

"The videotape simply doesn't give you the whole story," said Peter Arenella, a UCLA criminal law professor.

With the jury of eight men and four women set to continue deliberations this morning for a sixth day, the trial remains as unpredictable as the city remains tense.

But at least one legal scholar says, given the history of this case, the longer the deliberations drag on, the more likely of an acquittal or a hung jury for the four defendants.

"Deep in my heart, I suspect they'll acquit them all," said Norman Garland, a law professor at the Southwestern University School of Law.

Until a decision is reached, however, Los Angeles will remain in a state of high anxiety.

Yesterday, just the one-hour delay of an announcement that one juror was taken ill sent a wave of apprehension through the city.

Although Judge John G. Davies couldn't announce "what the nature of the problem is," he said the juror was accompanied by a U.S. marshal on a visit to "a family doctor." The judge indicated deliberations would continue today.

KCBS-TV reported the female juror suffered from stress-related hives and is expected to rejoin the panel today.

If the juror is too ill to continue, however, the federal rules provide the case could continue with 11 jurors. A 12th juror could be added if both sides agree to select one of three alternates at random.

For now, each of the four defendants await their verdicts.

Officers Laurence M. Powell and Theodore J. Briseno and former Officer Timothy E. Wind are accused of stomping, kicking and striking Mr. King with batons, violating his Fourth-Amendment right to be safe from the use of unreasonable force.

Sgt. Stacey C. Koon did not strike Mr. King, but he was the senior officer at the scene and is accused of violating Mr. King's 14th Amendment right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law.

They face maximum sentences of 10 years and $250,000 in fines.

Legal scholars say this case will be even tougher to win for the prosecution than last year's state trial at Simi Valley.

There, state prosecutors, relying on the constant replaying of the videotape, had to prove only that excessive force was used against Mr. King after he was arrested following a high-speed, 8-mile car chase.

And they failed, leading to acquittals for four defendants on the ,, top felony assault charges.

But in this case, the federal prosecutors have to prove that the defendants intended to harm Mr. King, a subtle but crucial point.

"If excessive force was the only issue in this case, there would have been a reasonable possibility of conviction," said Mr. Arenella. "It is difficult for a jury to conclude that what started out as a justified use of force ended up becoming criminal activity."

Jurors have to wade through two versions of the same story.

The police have been portrayed as either "bullies with badges," or men doing "a tough, dirty job." Mr. King has been called either a victim of "street justice," or a man who simply "made the wrong choices."

"There is no middle ground," said Michael Stone, the attorney for Officer Powell, who delivered most of the baton blows to Mr. King.

There have been major differences between the trials.

At Simi Valley, Mr. King did not testify. Here, he did, "putting a human face" on the incident," according to Mr. Arenella.

Three of the officers testified during the state proceeding. But here, only Sergeant Koon testified in the court room as he took responsibility for the incident.

"If the jury believes Stacey Koon, we all walk," Mr. Stone has said. "If they don't believe Stacey Koon, we're all in trouble."

The jury also saw an edited videotape of Mr. Briseno's state trial testimony, in which he said his fellow officers were guilty of misconduct.

Unlike in the state trial, federal prosecutors brought in civilian witnesses to the beating, and made use of experts to buttress their case that excessive force was used and that only baton blows could have led to Mr. King's facial injuries.

"The prosecutors did an excellent job of correcting mistakes made by the prosecutors of the first trial," Mr. Arenella said.

But can those prosecutors gain a conviction?

"I don't know," Mr. Arenella said.

The videotape remains at the core of the case.

"The general view all along was that this was a slam dunk for the prosecution because of the tape," said Mr. Garland. "But all along, that was a miscalculation."

But for now, the case rests with a jury that must sift through evidence and find the truth contained in a videotape.

It's a tough call.

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