Talking Melanin

GREGORY P. KANE

October 27, 1993|By GREGORY P. KANE

The bottom line is this: What did it look like?

A group of thugs drags a man from his truck, kicks, punches and pummels him severely. As a coup de grace, one hurls a brick into the man's head at point-blank range and dances a jig of glee afterward. The grisly affair is caught on video tape.

It looks like attempted murder to me. It probably looks the same to most other folks, unless they happened to be among the 12 members of the jury that acquitted defendant Damian Williams of attempted murder in the assault on Reginald Denny.

Thus the jury in the Denny case continued the pattern of bad decisions in high-profile cases involving the city of Los Angeles.

In April of 1992, a jury in Simi Valley acquitted the four Los Angeles police officers who were on trial for bludgeoning one Rodney King into submission. Like the Denny beating, that one was also caught on video tape. In that trial, too, a jury simply failed to take into account what it looked like the cops were doing.

So the Denny and King cases have given us a veritable milestone in American jurisprudence. Anyone caught doing anything that ends up on a video camera need no longer worry about the tape ending up in court as evidence. They can just find themselves a defense attorney with a degree from Hoodwink University who can convince the jurors that they don't see what their eyes are telling them.

In March of 1991, just weeks after the Rodney King beating, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was fatally shot in the back by a Korean grocer for allegedly shoplifting a bottle of orange juice that cost a whopping $1.79. The grocer was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and given only five years probation for the slaying of the black teen-ager.

The jury didn't botch the Harlins case. The presiding judge managed to do that all by herself. But the pattern had been set. After the egregious sentence in the Harlins case and the acquittal of the police officers in the Simi Valley trial, who can honestly say they were surprised when the jury in the Denny trial came back with a not-guilty verdict on the charge of attempted murder? The jurors probably figured, ''Heck, why should we be the ones to buck the trend?''

Or maybe they just bought the line that the defendants in the Denny case were charged too harshly for the assault. According to one wire story, ''though many black residents believed the defendants should be punished for their crimes, there was a widespread belief that prosecutors piled on harsher charges because the attackers were black and their victim white.''

The jury may have felt the same way. They may have concluded that while the assault was bad, it certainly didn't warrant a life sentence, which is what Williams could have received had he been found guilty of attempted murder.

I could have lived with a life sentence for Damian Williams. It would have given him ample leisure to perfect those nifty dance moves. Blacks who feel otherwise, who buy the claim that Williams and his co-defendant received harsher charges because of their race and the race of their victim, may simply be letting their melanin -- not their reason -- speak for them.

There is another reason that the prosecutors sought the maximum penalty for the Denny assault. They may have wanted to make a clear, concise statement that mob violence would not be tolerated, no matter what the justification. Given America's sordid history of mob violence -- most of it directed against blacks -- the prosecutors were justified.

Joseph Duff, the president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, said as much when he proclaimed that the defendants in the Denny case should be prosecuted ''to the full extent.'' He was greeted with a horde of protesters at the city's NAACP office for making the remark. That'll teach him to utter truth in the current political climate in America.

But if some blacks in Los Angeles have abandoned reason, whites may be following suit in the wake of the Denny verdict. One wire story quoted a white resident of suburban Los Angeles thus: ''When the black guy got beat, we all felt those cops were wrong. But now the cops were sentenced to prison, and these guys walk free. Blacks are rubbing our face in it.''

He sounds like a man who is letting his lack of melanin talk for him. The defendants will not walk free. One has already spent 18 months in jail. Williams faces a maximum of eight years. Whatever else he does, he won't be walking free for a while.

But that shows how racially polarized we've become -- a nation of ninnies letting our melanin, or lack of it, do our talking for us.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Sun.

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