L.A. verdict reflects community's desire for an end to anger

MIKE LITTWIN

October 20, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

The story now in the Reginald Denny trial is the jury, just as it would be in the first Rodney King trial. The question is pretty much the same, too: What could they have been thinking?

This case looked open and shut. Of course, so did the King case.

There was the film, right? They had the entire crime scene captured on video, which is not simply reflective reality; it's hyper-reality. It's slo-mo, instant-replay, reverse-angle reality.

Speeded up or slowed down, the video showed Denny being pulled from his truck and beaten. Speeded up or slowed down, the video caught the brick flying from Damian Williams' hand and crashing into Denny's head. Then there was sort of a post-game celebration in which Williams did a little dance over Denny's fallen body.

We saw it. Everyone who owns a TV saw it.

But although we know what we saw -- the film had everything but subtitles -- somehow we can't agree on what it means.

It should be easy. Your eyes don't lie. A brick is a brick, an object not meant for use as a weapon.

A brick to the head can kill a man. In fact, if Denny had not been rescued by those braves souls living nearby who were watching the assault on TV, he would almost surely be dead. This seems to be a no-brainer. You throw the book at the guy who threw the brick.

And yet, a jury of Williams' peers determined he wasn't trying to kill Denny. He was . . . what? Certainly he was trying to smash his head in. Why else use a brick?

The jury settled on a verdict of simple mayhem, which brings with it a sentence of two to eight years. It was the only felony charge that has stuck in the trials of Williams and Henry Watson as the jury continued deliberations yesterday.

Is that fair?

Did the trial produce justice?

If you watched TV interviews and listened to the talk shows, you got your answer. Which is: It depends.

Again, we find ourselves straddling the fault line of American race relations.

Most whites seemed to think it was the gravest injustice. Denny, after all, could not have been more innocent. If you want your classic definition of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that was it. He was just plain unlucky.

It could have been anyone driving that truck at the corner of Florence and Normandie. That is, it could have been any white person. This was, finally, about race, wasn't it?

Many blacks seemed to see it differently. Some spoke of justice finally being done, suggesting that Williams and Watson were no more guilty than the cops who beat King. While they didn't necessarily want Williams and Watson to walk, they didn't want them sent away for life either. They wanted linkage.

There was also the argument made that we must understand the rage felt in South-Central Los Angeles on that night of the King verdicts when 53 died and great chunks of a city burned. Great passions caused great tragedies. Ironically, one white person who agrees is Denny himself, who has called for forgiveness.

The jury took a middle course. It looks from the outside as if the jury chose a compromise -- to punish, but not to punish too harshly.

When you look at the jury, the trial gets especially interesting. The jury is a typical Los Angeles polyglot, a true rainbow coalition.

The jury was finally composed of two whites, four African-Americans, four Latinos and two Asian-Americans. If the reaction to the verdicts breaks down on racial lines, the people who decided the verdicts obviously did not.

This was a mixed jury that needed to reach a unanimous judgment. We can only guess how they got there.

At least one thing is clear: Juries do not operate in a vacuum. According to what the forewoman told the judge, one juror apparently feared for her safety. With the riots following the King verdict as a backdrop, there was great pressure on these 12 people, which would explain the jurors who had to be removed during the deliberations.

Another thing: A trial can sometimes become a morality play. Peter Arenella, a law professor at the University of Southern California, explained, "A jury operates as the conscience of a community. I think this verdict reflects the conscience of the community here."

What the community wanted, the jury must have known, is an end to the anger and violence.

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