The American Lawyer
“Maybe The Jury Was
BY ROGER PARLOFF
I watched much of the trial of the four Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King. I might have done the same thing the jury did. Am I out of my mind?
In the past few weeks I have taken several friends aside, closed the door, lowered my voice, and confessed. I watched much of the trial of the four Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King. I might have done the same thing the jury did.
Am I out of my mind? A fascist? A racist? (I'm white.)
Speaking with my friends did not persuade me that my opinion was wrong. Oh, they all disagreed with me -- vehemently -- there was no ambiguity about that. It's just that none of them had watched any of the trial on television, and I had.
On the other hand, a torrent of politicians, commentators, and lawyers -- particularly, it seems, those I respect -- were arguing over the airwaves that actually seeing any of the trial wasn't a prerequisite to condemning the verdict. Senator Bill Bradley, Mayor Tom Bradley, Mayor David Dinkins, ABC's Cokie Roberts, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, and retired judge Fritz Alexander of New York's highest court have all stated publicly that, based upon their having seen fleeting snippets from the 81-second videotaped beating, they feel confident that nothing could possibly have occurred during the seven-week trial that was of any real moment. Nothing could have changed their minds.
And I certainly thought I was a racist after reading The New York Times's front-page, above-the-fold story about the verdict on April 30. In that story, staff reporter Seth Mydans summarized a defense case that sounded absurd on its face. The thrust of it was that "Mr. King was making potentially threatening movements as he rolled on the ground under the blows." The 12 jurors -- each of them was a racist, too, apparently -- had refused to use their common sense, though the prosecutor begged them to. Said the Times: "As defense lawyers sought explanations for this or that baton swing or kick, the prosecutor urged jurors simply to watch the tape and to believe their eyes."
Of course not all the media saw it so unambiguously. I drew some comfort from a less conspicuous story the next day in The Wall Street Journal that went out on a limb in the twenty-third paragraph on page A6: "Some observers of the trial said the verdict shouldn't necessarily be called wrong." (The observers were not identified.)
When the media finally got hold of one juror shortly after the verdict, she appeared to confirm the nation's worst fears. She said she thought that King had been in full control of the situation -- a bizzare, outlandish statement to anyone who had seen the excerpts from the video. But again, believe it or not, I agreed with the juror.
The defense case I watched on television was plausible; indeed, many of its most significant points were essentially undisputed. It went something like this:
Shortly after midnight on March 3, 1991, Rodney King, 25, failed to pull over after California highway patrol officers observed him speeding. He led officers on an eight-mile high-speed chase, during which the highway patrol requested assistance from the Los Angeles police. King reached speeds approaching 100 miles per hour on the freeway before taking an off-ramp onto the city streets, according to prosecution witnesses called to testify against the defendant police officers. On the city streets he ran stop signs and stoplights and reached speeds of 60-80 miles per hour, according to prosecution witnesses. (And no, I'm not talking about some reluctant Los Angeles police officer subpoenaed to testify against his will; I'm talking about state highway patrol officers who were at loggerheads with the Los Angeles police witnesses, and who provided the principal eyewitness testimony against the defendants.)
With numerous police cars chasing him and a police helicopter overhead, King finally jammed on his brakes and stopped his car in the second lane of a residential street. The Times article, though it does mention a "high-speed chase," also twice refers to King's offense thus far as a "traffic stop." Time magazine's May 11 article about the verdict makes no allusion to any of these events.
The evidence before the jury was that two passengers in King's car, who were black, followed police orders to get out of the car and lie prone. They were searched for weapons, handcuffed, and then released. (A post-verdict tumult has now arisen about whether this evidence was accurate. I will discuss that later. But the evidence before the jury, which included the sworn testimony of passenger Bryant Allen, was that virtually nothing had happened to either passenger in King's car, who followed police orders. The other passenger, Freddie Helms, died in a car crash before the trial.)
King, in contrast, refused to follow commands, again according to prosecution witnesses. He would not lie prone and would not allow himself to be searched for weapons or handcuffed. He resisted. He was 6 feet 3 inches tall, about 230 pounds, muscular, and much larger than any of the individual officers. After a period of dancing outside his car, waving at the helicopter and wiggling his hips at the officers, he did initially comply to the extent of getting down on all fours, according to prosecution and defense witnesses. The officers attempted to cuff him in that position, since he refused to get in the prone position. Defendant Laurence Powell took hold of King's left arm, while defendant Theodore Briseno took King's right arm. They attempted to pull King's arms back behind him to cuff him. While they did so, Briseno's partner held one of King's legs while defendant Timothy Wind held the other.
But King stiffened his arms and the officers were unable to move them. Then King threw or shook the officers off his arms and stood up, according to defense and prosecution witnesses.
Defendant Sergeant Stacey Koon, who was a few steps away at the time, testified that it had frightened him that King was not only continuing to struggle but that he had been able to shake off four officers and rise to his feet. Koon ordered his officers to back away from King so that he could use the next level of force recommended under Los Angeles police procedures, a Taser gun. The Taser gun shoots a suspect with a dart, which is attached by a wire to the gun. The officer holding the gun can then administer a brief, powerful electric shock that causes most human beings to collapse immediately, enabling a suspect to be handcuffed.
Koon ordered King to get down or he would be shot with the Taser, according to defense and prosecution witnesses. King refused and instead began advancing toward Koon, according to defense and prosecution witnesses. Koon fired the first dart; King groaned and his face convulsed, but he did not go down, according to defense and prosecution witnesses. Koon again ordered King to get down or he would fire the Taser's second dart, according to defense and prosecution witnesses. Kind did not obey, and Koon fired the second dart. King moaned, flailed his arms, and then fell to the ground, according to defense and prosecution witnesses.
The three defendant officers who testified -- including Theodore Briseno, the one who broke ranks at trial and accused the others of being out of control -- all testified that they believed King was on PCP, because of the way he was behaving and the seemingly superhuman strength he was displaying. Lab tests -- which were, of course, unavailable to the officers -- later showed that they were wrong; King tested negative for PCP. They were right, however, that King was highly intoxicated; the blood-alcohol content of his blood was .19 percent, about twice the legal limit.
It is apparently at this point, with King having been downed by the second Taser dart, that the video begins running, according to the prosecution and the defense. It is likely, nevertheless, that most of the nation has never seen this early portion of the film. King, with Taser wires still sticking into his clothing, jumps up from the road, wheels around, and lungs at Powell. The prosecutor Terry White conceded in his opening statement that King may have been charging Powell at this point. (White also suggested that King might have been trying to run past Powell to get away -- and odd route to take and, in any event, still a form of resistance.)
Powell then strikes King with the first tape-recorded baton blow of the night. King falls. The defense claims that King's face bounced on the pavement -- the tape appears to corroborate their claim -- and that some of his head injuries were sustained at this point. There is a dispute about how full a swing Powell got off on that first blow, and about where it fell -- square across King's head, on his arm, or glancing off his shoulder and unintentionally into his head. There is little dispute that this first swing was in self-defense. Officer Briseno -- the defendant who broke ranks at trial -- testified that Powell's first blow did hit King in the head, but he also said that he did not fault Powell for this swing, because Powell had had no time to react and was simply defending himself. The prosecution expert on excessive force, who was called in the prosecution's rebuttal case, did not fault Powell for his blow.
Then the videocamera captures Powell showering King with blows. You cannot see on the video tape where they are landing because King is behind a car. Briseno testified that he believed that some of the blows were hitting King in the head area, though he couldn't be certain. Powell denied hitting King in the head. (Under Los Angeles police department policy, officers are instructed not to strike people in the head, neck, spine, or groin with the baton, since that could constitute lethal force.)
While these blows are landing, the videocamera also captures King continuing to try to stand up. You can seehis head rising up form behind the car. The prosecution expert on excessive force did not fault Powell for these blows. We are now up to about ten of the fifty-six blows. Does that excuse the next forty-some blows? You have read this far; please keep reading.
The hand-held camera goes out of focus for a moment, and when it next finds King, he is prone and the officers are not hitting him. Powell and Wind have their batons cocked, however, evidently ready to strike if King starts to get up again. At this point Briseno can be seen on tape grabbing Powell's baton in an unambiguous attempt to restrain Powell from delivering any more blows to King. The prosecution expert on excessive force testified that at this point further use of the batons became excessive. Again, by my count, roughly ten or so baton blows had already been dealt by then, including all of the ones that might have hit King in the head. Though you cannot tell for sure from the tape, most of the subsequent blows appear to land on King's arms or legs; none appear to hit his head or any other forbidden location. No witness claims that any of these later blows hit King in the head.
There is no evidence from the tape or from eyewitnesses that defendant Wind -- who was new to the Los Angeles police force and was being trained by Powell -- ever struck King in the head. As a matter of fact, in Paul DePasquale's summation on Wind's behalf, he played the tape in slow motion while an assistant keep a pointer trained on his client the entire time. (This does not seem like a tricky, misleading defense tactic to me; it seems like the most straightforward method conceivable of letting the jury determine Wind's guilt or innocence.) DePasquale argued -- and the tape backs him up, it seems to me -- that Wind evaluating King's conduct carefully, striking only when King appears to be trying to stand up, and checking his swing when Powell's head begins to come near the path of his baton.
There was evidence -- conflicting evidence, and not necessarily proof beyond a reasonable doubt -- that Powell struck King in the head. The most dramatic testimony came from highway patrol officer Melanie Singer, who, in effect, described Powell as behaving almost like the villain in a made-for-televison movie. (And maybe he did.) Singer testified Powell struck King in the face with the baton for no reason whatsoever while King kneeled on the ground immediately after being Tasered, and that he then struck King with an additional six totally unjustified blows to the head.
The trouble was, Singer's testimony was out of synch with that of other prosecution witnesses -- including that of her husband, another highway patrol officer -- and it certainly wasn't corroborated by the tape. Singer admitted that, viewing the tape, she couldn't see the incident she thought she saw. She also admitted that King's injuries were not consistent with what she thought she saw. A medical expert testified for the defense that King's injuries were inconsistent with his having been struck in the face or head with power-swings from a baton, and no prosecution medical expert rebutted that testimony. (The defense medical expert testified that King's facial injuries were consistent with contact with a broad, flat surface -- for instance, a fall to the ground.) Briseno, who strongly attacked Powell's conduct in his testimony, did not recall anything resembling what Singer described.
If Powell struck King in the head, the evidence before the jury indicated he most likely did so during the moments immediately after King attacked him. The medical testimony suggested that if any of King's facial injuries were caused by a baton, rather than by a fall, they were most likely caused by a deflected -- that is, accidental -- blow. Powell's acts during this early chaotic period of the violence would be the hardest for the jurors to second-guess. Indeed, this was the period of the beating that the prosecution expert on excessive force declined to fault.
From this point on, the defense used slow-motion replays to demonstrate that Powell and Wind -- the only two defendants who ever strike King with batons -- are, in fact, frequently pausing to observe King's behavior. Whenever King moves his arm toward his waistband -- remember, the officers have not been able to search King -- they hit him. When King appears to get back into a push-up position or pulls his knees up under him -- the positions from which he has twice before risen to his feet and advanced upon the officers -- they hit him.
This doesn't shock me. If ordinary-sized police officers are trying to control a violent, resisting suspect who is the size of a professional football player (let alone one who has not yet been searched for a gun), I think it is unrealistic to say that they cannot strike him until he has regained his feet. Two defense experts testified that it is proper under such circumstances to hit a downed suspect who is trying to get up. King does momentarily make it to his feet for a third time during this segment of the tape, but he is beaten down to the ground. Numerous prosecution and defense witnesses testified that the defendants yelled at King to get down in the spread-eagle prone position throughout the beating.
At the same time, when King gets in the prone position, he is not struck. Like it or not, this is what the video shows. I am not ignoring the video; I am watching it. I am believing my eyes. There are two interludes, in fact, when King appears to be ready to allow himself to be handcuffed, and nobody strikes him until he makes a move to get up again. In the second of these interludes King gets in the prone position with his arms outstretched and then pulls his arms back, apparently so that he can be handcuffed. A moment passes while Powell is trying to pull his cuffs out -- they get stuck in his back pocket -- and nobody hits King. At just this point, however, when it seems that the violence has finally come to an end, defendant Briseno -- who has until then played no role in the violence other than the exculpatory one of trying to restrain Powell's baton -- steps on King's upper body or, according to the prosecution, his neck or head. Briseno testified that he was trying to hold King down, because he knew that Wind and Powell were going to hit King again if he started to rise. Briseno's attempt to hold King down was clumsy, he testified, because he was fearful of being struck by baton blows if Powell and Wind started up again. Whatever his intent, Briseno's foot comes down hard on King, who recoils violently, pulling his hands away from the cuffing position. King -- understandably now -- begins struggling again and rolls onto his right side. Powell -- who testified that he was focusing only on King's legs, and did not realize that Briseno had caused King to break out of the handcuffing position -- rains down the final six or eight blows on King, while Wind twice kicks King with the sole of his shoe, as if to push King back into the prone position.
King never does assume a prone position. He is finally forcibly cuffed from a sitting position -- still struggling.
Powell testified at trial that he was totally unaware of the other officers who were arriving at the scene while the incident was playing out. He was completely focused on King, Powell said. The tape strongly corroborates Powell's testimony in that regard. Briseno also corroborated that testimony, telling the jury that Powell appeared completely unaware of Briseno's existence even when Briseno grabbed Powell's baton and told him to stop. (The tape corroborates Briseno's testimony in that regard.) Of his own state of mind Powell testified: "I was completely in fear for my life. I was scared to death that if he got up again he was going to take my gun away from me or there was going to be a shooting."
Now, at some point, watching the tape, I, like everyone else, become sickened. Looking at the tape in my living room, I say, "For Christ's sake, why didn't they just give up on trying to get King into the goddamn prone position?" (Ultimately, of course, the four officers did just that; they swarmed King while he was in a sitting position.)
On the other hand, Los Angeles police officers are trained to force suspects into the prone position, because that is the procedure that is supposed to best guarantee their own safety. If that procedure and training ought to be reexamined, the time and place to reform it is not a criminal prosecution of four officers who were required to follow it.
So the question then becomes, was it criminal for these officers to continue to try to force King into a prone position longer than the prosecution expert testified that a reasonable police officer would have? The fact that defendant Briseno was less fearful than Powell and wanted to stop the baton use earlier than Powell did -- if you believe Briseno -- does not necessarily prove that Powell is a criminal. Briseno hadn't been attacked, after all, and Powell had. (The prosecution expert, Commander Michael Bostic, who had not served in the field for may years, arrived at his own conclusion about when the officers should have stopped hitting King by repeatedly watching the tape in the tranquility of his office or home. For me, the most surreal moment of the trial came during Bostic's testimony, when he jogged the videotape back and forth -- considering and reconsidering, flipping through the frames in superslow motion -- and finally settled upon that instant of the tape when the time counter read 03.42.20 -- more than 20 seconds into the beating -- as the moment when the officers' conduct passed from duty to criminality.)
What force should a reasonable police officer use in the midst of a potentially life-threatening fracas like this one? I think jurors try to answer that question by imagining how they would measure up under the circumstances, assuming they had police training. (There's no other way to do it, really.) And remember that while police are taught to respond in a disciplined fashion to volatile situations, they are also taught the multitude of ways in which suspects have surprised unprepared officers in the past -- and killed them as a result.
I like to think that had I been obliged to subdue King on March 3, 1991, I would have shown the sort of courage, restraint, and presence of mind that the prosecution expert believes I should have shown. And that I would have done so even if I thought King was on PCP, and even if I didn't know whether King was armed, and even if King had continued resisting after being shot with two Taser darts, and even if King had already jumped up and attacked me once. But do I believe it beyond a reasonable doubt?
With that in mind, I should add that if you are unwilling to put yourself in the officers' shoes -- because you cannot imagine yourself or anyone you love choosing to become a police officer and having to subdue a resisting suspect -- then you are not a fit juror for this case. You may also be a class bigot.
What do I make of Powell's racist comment to a policewoman 20 minutes before this incident -- the statement that some unrelated altercation he had dealt with was "right out of Gorillas in the Mist"? I conclude that Powell is a racist, and I do weigh it against him. Both the remark and his willingness to lie about it make me believe that he is not fit to be a police officer, and they make me question the veracity of his other testimony. But I don't think the comment, together with all the other evidence -- inculpatory and exculpatory -- necessarily establishes that Powell is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal assault with a deadly weapon.
There's one last shibboleth to deal with before returning to my original point. The consensus among those who never saw a moment of the trial is that prosecutor Terry White committed a grave error by not calling Rodney King to the stand. Perhaps he did. But it is far more likely that he did not. Look at the case from prosecutor White's perspective.
First, if King took the stand, the jury was going to find out about his 1989 conviction for robbing a grocery store. (A grocery clerk had testified at a preliminary hearing in that case that King took a tire iron from under his jacket and threatened him with it.) In addition, if King took the stand, the defendants were almost certainly going to be allowed to inquire into other violent criminal episodes that King had allegedly been involved in, both before and after this incident, though they had not resulted in convictions.
Second, King had given numerous statements immediately after the incident -- to print media, television media, and his parole officer -- that were inconsistent with those of other prosecution witnesses and, indeed, inconsistent with what can be seen on the videotape. According to prosecutor White, King said in these early statements that he hadn't been drinking, hadn't been speeding, had pulled over at the first opportunity, had never resisted, and was never combative. (In his early statements, King had also denied that the incident had any racial component.)
There is no basis for second-guessing prosecutor White's decision not to call King. In fact, those who think that calling the victim necessarily would have strengthened the prosecution case should consider what impact the patently incredible testimony of King's passenger, Bryant Allen, must have had on the jury. Allen, 25, who was called by the prosecution, testified that King, passenger Freddie Helms, and he each drank one 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor from about 6 P.M. until 8 P.M. on March 2, 1991, and then spent two hours sitting in King's car in front of Allen's home so that any residual effects of the alcohol would wear off. (A defense expert later testified that for King to have shown .19 percent blood-alcohol content at 1 A.M., as he did, based upon two hours of drinking that stopped at 8 P.M., as Allen claimed, King would have to have consumed 24 12-ounce bottles of beer or 30 ounces of 80-proof liquor.) At about 10 P.M., Allen testified, King started up the car and took the other two for a two-hour drive, with no discussion among any of them of where they were going. None of them were the least bit drunk when King started driving, Allen testified, and none had taken any drugs. Passenger Helms was asleep. When Allen noticed the flashing lights of the police car behind them, he repeatedly told King to pull over. King did not respond and appeared to be "in a trance" and "acting weird," according to Allen. Although Allen testified that he became so scared that he considered jumping out the window of the moving car, he also testified that King drove normally at all times, stopping at all stop signs and red lights and obeying the speed limits, while more and more police cars and a police helicopter joined in the chase. Allen testified that Helms "slept" through the entire chase -- helicopter, sirens, public address commands, and all -- and did not wake up until a police officer pulled him out of the car. (Allen also told the jurors that he had been convicted of robbery and that he could not recall whether he had also been convicted of a burglary. "What kind of burglary?" he asked.)
Now that you have the flavor of Allen's testimony, I'll address the tumult over the prosecution's failure to highlight at trial Allen's allegation that he, too, was beaten. Since the verdict Allen, who has filed a civil suit against the police, has stated on The Montel Williams Show that he was dragged from the car, thrown to the ground,kicked twice in the side, and stomped on the back.
That was not Allen's sworn testimony at trial. There he said he voluntarily assumed the prone position in response to police commands. He then testified, "I feel somebody's kick or stomp." Shortly thereafter he was brought to his feet, led to a police car, and released, Allen testified. It is not true, as the New York Daily News reported the day Allen appeared on Montel Williams, that the prosecution had refused to call Allen to testify at trial. Nor is it true, as New York Newsday reported that same day, that trial judge Stanley Weisberg had interrupted Allen's testimony at trial and had forbidden him from mentioning his alleged beating.
What is true is that the prosecution chose not to highlight Allen's allegations for two reasons. First, prosecutor White explains, the allegations appeared to be inadmissible, because Allen did not claim that a defendant had kicked or stomped on him. Second, White says, he had serious doubts about the truth of Allen's accusation. Allen had been interviewed by both prosecutors and police in the days immediately after the beating and had not mentioned at that time a kick or stomp, according to White.
Not let's return to that statement that one of the jurors made to the media -- the statement that the media now offers as proof positive that all the jurors in this case must have been either out to lunch or racists. The juror said she thought King was in control of the situation. The juror was adopting a defense argument made by defendant Koon's counsel Darryl Mounger in both his opening statement and summation. The juror meant that King could have avoided or stopped the beating by assuming a prone position. I agree. Every time King assumed that position, the beating stopped. (It's no secret in Los Angeles that this is what is expected of an arrest suspect, and King had been arrested before.)
Why didn't King get in the prone position? There are several possibilities. The standard theory of everyone with whom I associate is that King wasn't disobeying orders at all, he was writhing on the ground in agony. That may accurately explain the last ten seconds or so of the violence; it does not account for most of the tape; and even the prosecution conceded that it does not account for King's conduct during the beginning of the tape. If Powell and Wind were too focused or fearful to see the altercation with the perspective we now can, and they therefore continued trying to force King into the prone position longer than they should have, maybe they should lose their jobs, and maybe they should lose a civil suit. But are they criminals?
There are other reasons King might not have obeyed. Maybe he was too intoxicated. Or, maybe after suffering the early blows -- which the prosecution expert did not challenge -- King became too frightened or disoriented. But if so, how would the police officers know that? Why should they bear the risk of King's irresponsibility in becoming so intoxicated or in provoking the initial, concededly appropriate baton blows?
Personally, I think the reason King did not obey -- and this is just speculation -- was that he didn't want to. He was on parole, he was driving while intoxicated, he had led police on a high-speed chase, and he didn't want to go back to prison. On the other hand, at some point King's resistance does seem to turn into something else -- something astonishing and, to many people, heroic. I think the nation is captivated by the powerful image of a black man rising up from the ground, never submitting, while uniformed white men try to beat him down with batons. But it was not the jurors' task to admire King's defiance. From everything they were told, King was resisting an apparently lawful arrest for recklessly endangering people's lives -- black and white -- by driving at outrageous speeds while heavily intoxicated. The jury can't convict four real people because, while doing their jobs, they got caught up on the wrong side of a metaphor. And, as the maligned juror was trying to say, all the evidence the jury saw suggested that it was King who put the officers in that position.
Finally, let's briefly reexamine the New York Times coverage about the verdict. (The only reason I pick on the Times is that it's so authoritative. Predictably, lesser news source were spreading out-and-out falsehoods about the case. I saw a local New York City television news report that floated the absurd rumor that the jurors had never been allowed to view the tape at normal speed.)
In an unsigned article supplementing reporter Mydans's piece, the Times characterized -- no, caricatured -- the defense case as having been composed of "three major arguments." First, the defendants and their experts claimed that the baton blows were in response to "aggressive movements and postures by the mostly prone Mr. King," the Times wrote. Well, wouldn't it be fair to add that the defense claimed to have feared those movements because a previously prone Mr. King, with two Taser darts still sticking in him, had already jumed up once and attacked defendant Powell?
Second, the officers claimed they "needed to use all necessary force to keep [King] from rising from the ground." Yes, but can the reader appreciate the strength of that argument without understanding that King had already twice risen from the ground and advanced upon the officers?
Third, "Mr. King's injuries were not as serious as the prosecution contended." No, that's really not it. The defense argument, supported by medical testimony, was that King's injuries were different in kind from those one would expect to see if he had been hit in the head with power-swings from a side-handled baton, the crime most of the nation's population assumes was committed.
In reporting on a verdict that had, as the story notes, already triggered looting and arson, was there really no space in its 3,250-word coverage for the Times to mention that the officers said they believed King was on PCP, or that King was, in fact, heavily intoxicated? No space to mention that the officers had tried unsuccessfully to handcuff King forcibly; that they had then tried to subdue him by shooting two electrified Taser darts into him, to no effect; and that King had then jumped to his feet and charged the lead defendant?
The jurors acquitted Koon, Briseno, and Wind. They couldn't agree on whether to convict Powell. They acquitted Powell on the top felony assault charge, but hung on a second felony assault charge, which was defined differently.
To convict Powell on the top charge the jury would have to have concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that at some point when Powell was unlawfully hitting King -- and not, of course, when Powell was hitting King with one of those concededly appropriate blows during the early period of the violence -- Powell had criminally attempted to cause violent injury to King with a "deadly weapon" or by means of force likely to produce death or "great bodily injury." Force likely to produce "moderate injury of a temporary nature," on the other hand, was insufficient to make out this count, the jury was instructed. The jurors had heard testimony that the baton, except when used to strike the head, neck, spine, or groin, was not considered deadly force. The jury acquitted Powell on this count.
At the same time, the jury reached a stalemate over a second felony assault charge, which did not require proof of the use of a "deadly weapon" or force likely to cause "great bodily injury."
This verdict does not signal to me that the jurors were racist, or that they did not give the case serious thought. At the end of six days of deliberation, four jurors felt that Powell's conduct was criminal, while eight felt that it was not. Each side felt strongly enough that it would not capitulate, forcing a mistrial.
(With hindsight, of course, it is obviously tragic that a case like this one was tried before a jury with no blacks, since acquittals under such circumstances could never command public confidence. I suspect that Judge Weisberg would be along the first to endorse state legislation that, unlike the case law he was obliged to apply, would have permitted him to give greater weight to demographics than to the convenience of the parties and witnesses in choosing a new venue.)
People's everyday judgments are quick and cruel. A criminal trial is designed to ensure that a more deliberate and well-considered decision-making process will be employed whenever the state attempts to declare one of its citizens a criminal.
The purpose of this criminal trial was not to determine what sometimes, often, or usually occurs when black suspects encounter white police officers. The purpose was to determine the conduct and intent of the four defendants on March 3, 1991. Fear is not criminal intent. In my view, excessively rigid adherence to training during a crisis is not criminal intent.
I can't remember a time when I have ever felt so hesitant to say what I believe. In writing this piece I am concerned about the reactions of friends, relatives, and people I work with who will see this article's headline and byline and never read the rest. And I am terrified at the prospect of quotation out of context. After all, imagine if the media were to summarize this article the way it summarized the trial.
Editor's Note: This month's Video Trial Report -- which complements this Headnotes column -- examines how the defense in the Rodney King police brutality case could have overcome such a seemingly incriminating videotape to create reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds.
CORRECTION-DATE: July, 1992 / August, 1992
* In "Maybe the Jury Was Right" [June], senior reporter Roger Parloff erred in writing that no prosecution witness ever rebutted the testimony of a defense expert who opined that Rodney King's wounds were inconsistent with his having been struck in the face or head with power-swings from a baton. A prosecution expert did testify in rebuttal that one could not determine the cause of King's injuries from examining the injuries themselves. He also opined that, judging from the angle of impact, some of these injuries were more likely produced by a baton than by a fall. Accordingly, there was conflicting medical evidence before the jury on these questions.
* We regret the errors and omissions.