L.A. pair cleared of most charges Williams still faces most serious count in Denny beating

October 19, 1993|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- A jury yesterday acquitted two black men of most of the severe charges against them in the beating of a white truck driver and seven other people in last year's rioting.

Deliberations were to resume today on two undecided charges, including the most serious one: the attempted murder of the truck driver, Reginald O. Denny.

Jurors said they were split 11-1 on this count against Damian Monroe Williams, and lawyers in the case said they believed that the jury was leaning toward acquittal.

In reaching its mixed verdicts on 15 separate counts, the jury did not reach a conviction on any charge as presented by the prosecution. It reached six convictions on reduced charges and seven acquittals.

Williams, 20, was convicted on a charge of simple mayhem, a felony, in the attack on Mr. Denny and misdemeanor assault charges in four other attacks. He could face up to 10 years on these convictions. In addition, he could be sentenced to life in prison if he is convicted on the charge of attempted murder.

Henry Keith Watson, 29, was convicted only on a charge of misdemeanor assault against Mr. Denny and faces up to six months in prison. The two men have already been held for 18 months since their arrest two weeks after the beatings in April 1992. Watson's lawyer, Karen Ackerson, said she would ask for his release from jail.

Watson could be sentenced to four years in prison on the undecided felony charge of assault with a deadly weapon on another motorist.

The jury's overwhelming rejection of most of the case against the two men was seen as a victory for the defense, and their lawyers said the defendants were "elated" and "overwhelmed."

The prosecution had presented more than 40 minutes of videotapes of the attack on Mr. Denny and the other motorists at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in the South-Central section of Los Angeles on April 29, 1992.

The beatings came after the announcement that four white police officers had been acquitted in the beating of a black motorist. The tapes showed a man prosecutors said was Williams rearing back and hurling a brick at Mr. Denny's head and another they identified as Watson holding his foot on Mr. Denny's neck.

It appeared that the jurors rejected a contention by Williams' lawyer, Edi M. O. Faal, that Williams was not the man shown on the videotapes of the beating. But they also appeared to have accepted his argument that the attacks were part of a wild, unthinking mob, and not premeditated assaults.

Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said on her radio talk show yesterday, "Having concluded that they had the right guys they then concluded there was not the right intent."

On Saturday, the jury had told Superior Court Judge John G. Ouderkirk that it was deadlocked on six charges. After taking Sunday off, they resolved four of those counts during the course of deliberations yesterday and the judge told them to continue today.

The jurors are also undecided on one "special allegation" that Williams used a deadly weapon in committing mayhem on Mr. Denny.

Williams placed his hands over his face in relief as the verdicts were read as Mr. Faal put his arm around him. Watson's lawyer, Ms. Ackerson, said afterward: "He can't believe it. He's just totally ecstatic."

Calm in the city

The city was calm as night approached with little sign of increased police patrols. Mayor Richard Riordan made a brief televised statement in which he said, "Now is the time to look forward, not back."

District Attorney Gil Garcetti said, "Some people clearly disagree with the verdicts that have been read. Some are pleased. Some think the verdicts do not amount to justice, but justice is not perfect."

Legal experts said the jury appeared to have examined carefully the specifics of the individual incidents and of the law, making fine distinctions in its verdicts.

"This case has shown that a videotape is just a starting point, that it can never substitute for a jury taking a close look at a case and at the specific charges that have been brought," said Laurie M. Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Early in the day, the jury read 12 verdicts it had reached, leading Judge Ouderkirk to poll the members about their deadlocks. Six said they believed that further deliberations could be useful, and the judge sent them back to the jury room. They reappeared after one more hour of deliberations to add one more verdict, an acquittal on a robbery charge.

In the central incident of the case, the beating of Mr. Denny, the jury continued to deliberate on a charge of attempted murder against Williams. The charge is punishable by life in prison.

It acquitted Williams of aggravated mayhem against Mr. Denny, a charge that also carries a life sentence. But it convicted him of simple mayhem, which carries a maximum sentence of eight years.

The charge of aggravated mayhem requires a finding of specific intent to inflict permanent disfigurement, whereas simple mayhem requires a finding of a lower level of intent.

The jury acquitted Watson of the attempted murder of Mr. Denny but convicted him of the lesser charge of assault on the truck driver.

Robert A. Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University Law School, said the verdicts demonstrated that the prosecutors brought heavier charges than were necessary in some cases.

Mr. Denny's lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochrane, said yesterday that Mr. Denny was satisfied with the verdicts and did not wish for a retrial on any charges that may remain undecided.

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