Just About a Perfect Verdict

April 19, 1993

The American system for administering justice did itself proud in Los Angeles Saturday. The verdict in the case of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King was just about perfect.

It was thought to be a difficult case to decide, because so much attention was focused on it and so much was feared riding on it. But the jurors did what jurors are supposed to do. They decided the case solely on the basis of the evidence presented. So said a juror interviewed after the trial, and he said so believably. Fear of riots "never came up at all -- not once," he said. "We were instructed to stick to the evidence and we stuck to the evidence." Another juror said she and the rest of panel felt they had to decide the case without regard to "compromise" or what might happen in the streets because "four men's lives were at stake." The jurors were living by a code of jurisprudence that is ancient but not always adhered to: "Let justice be done though the heavens may fall."

The heavens did not fall. That is due in large part to the fact that Los Angeles law enforcement was ready to stop a riot before it could begin. It was also due to the recognition by the public that the prosecution this time was one hundred percent dedicated to convicting the accused. Finally the heavens did not fall because of the intelligence and sophistication of the verdict. The officer in charge was found guilty. The officer who behaved most violently was found guilty. And the two more passive officers were acquitted.

Though not a compromise, this mixed verdict does make those critics of the system less credible. That includes both those few now saying that the "system is racist," because all four officers were not convicted, and those saying that because the two officers were convicted, this was "mob law," a caving in to the passions of a large, threatening segment of the population that felt aggrieved. Had all four officers been convicted, or had all four been acquitted, the potential for inflammatory denunciation of the system would been greater.

Unspoken in the indictment and prosecution and, presumably, jury deliberation, was the role of race. But clearly this became a cause celebre because the nation believed that consciously or unconsciously the officers' assault on Rodney King was related to the fact that they are white and he is black. In most large cities, many if not most police officers are white, and many if not most criminal suspects are black. Therefore it is imperative that racism of any sort be eradicated from law enforcement. Otherwise there will be neither justice nor peace and safety in America's cities.

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