Denny trial reactions show racial gaps Many whites say justice not served

blacks are divided

October 22, 1993|By New York Times News Service

ATLANTA -- Far from Los Angeles, the verdict in the Reginald O. Denny beating case reverberated across the United States yesterday, playing out like a Rorschach test of gaping racial divisions.

On talk shows and in interviews in several cities, many whites saw a judicial breakdown that some linked to an outdated and hypocritical national discourse on race that, they said, has turned criminal issues into civil rights ones.

"It was a tremendous miscarriage of justice," said Pat Warriner, a 49-year-old businessman who just moved to Atlanta. "If it was white guys beating on a black guy, they would have hung them."

For blacks, if there was little of the outrage felt by many whites, there seemed to be more division. Many felt that the sentences given to Damian M. Williams and Henry K. Watson for attacks on Mr. Denny and other motorists were too light and were as indefensible as the acquittal of the police officers who beat a black motorist, Rodney G. King, two and a half years ago in Los Angeles.

Others saw a measure of justice in the verdicts that completed a cycle that began with the outrage over the acquittal of the officers on April 29, 1992.

"Justice was done," said Gladys House, a black woman who manages the Camp Logan sandwich shop in Houston, which is named for the scene of a World War II Army race riot. "Usually, there is no justice for blacks in this country."

What the blacks and whites interviewed agreed on, however, was that the verdicts reflected the fear of riots as much as the evidence introduced in court, and that the torn social fabric in Los Angeles is not much different than it is anywhere else.

"This whole trial has brought out so many issues that we as a society have had trouble dealing with," said Nancy Smith, a black woman who sells jewelry from a cart she owns in Boston's Downtown Crossing retail area. "One person gets beaten and then another person. We've lowered ourselves to something that is not human."

A day after a jury acquitted Williams on charges of attempted murder, completing a striking victory for the defense in the beating case arising from the Los Angeles riots, the trial was a hot topic far beyond exhausted Los Angeles.

Some people lamented that it was, saying that in this case and the original trial of the officers who beat Mr. King, only those who heard all the evidence could judge the verdict.

"Only the 12 people in the jurors' box heard all the evidence that determined this case," said Keith Westrum, a white marketing executive from Portland, Ore., who was in Atlanta on business yesterday. "It's totally inappropriate to second-guess the jury unless you were there."

But just as other trials have become moral dramas that have served to define social issues, the Denny trial for many became a charged drama about race and justice in America.

For many whites, the sentences for a near-fatal beating replayed over and over on television, were an outrage, one compounded by the gleeful celebrations by family members and supporters inside and outside the courtroom in Los Angeles.

On talk radio, often an exercise in hyperbole, the sentiments were sometimes brutal and stark.

"I personalized this, I really did," one caller told Neal Boortz, whose Atlanta radio program seems to specialize in venom. "I felt a great deal of personal hatred toward Damian Williams."

Some blacks saw the case with equal clarity, if less vitriol.

"It was a debt that had to be repaid," one man, who declined to give his name, said yesterday at Underground Atlanta, a downtown entertainment and shopping complex where black and white Atlanta most visibly intersect. "Whites see this as an injustice. Well, blacks know that injustices happen to us all the time."

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