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Jury Convicts 2 Los Angeles Officers in King Beating

By Lou Cannon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 1993; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, APRIL 17 -- Two Los Angeles police officers were found guilty today of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights, and a sense of relief immediately enveloped a city traumatized by violence a year ago.

The verdicts were greeted with cheers by people assembled at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of the south-central area devastated by riots last spring. Calm was reported throughout the city and was apparent outside the federal building, where the verdicts were read.

As anxious residents waited tensely and police deployed in riot gear, the jury ended 40 hours of deliberation by convicting Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, the officer in charge, and officer Laurence M. Powell, who struck the most blows with his metal baton when King was subdued on a darkened roadside two years ago in a brutal videotaped beating that shocked the nation.

Officer Theodore J. Briseno, who at one point during the beating tried to restrain Powell, and Timothy E. Wind, a rookie fired after the incident, were acquitted by the jury of eight men and four women. The jury had two black members.

The officers are white and King is black, but government prosecutors did not allege racial motivation for the beating. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. Clymer said in his closing statement that the officers administered "street justice" because King was drunk, disrespectful and slow to follow police commands after a high-speed chase March 3, 1991.

The same defendants were acquitted last April 29 on 10 of 11 state charges by a jury in suburban Simi Valley that included no blacks. Those unexpected verdicts touched off the Los Angeles riots, in which 53 people died and nearly $1 billion in property was destroyed.

Defense attorneys insisted today that the riots cast a long shadow over the federal trial. "The difference between the two cases is that there was a riot and a national controversy after Simi Valley," said Harland W. Braun, who represented Briseno.

But Clymer and Barry F. Kowalski, a Justice Department civil rights attorney and one of four prosecutors, said the verdicts showed that police officers must abide by the Constitution.

"I think a year ago the conscience of America, the conscience of the city, cried out for justice, and this verdict provides justice," Kowalski said.

President Clinton told an airport crowd in Pittsburgh that the jurors "really tried to do justice." At a news briefing at the Justice Department, Attorney General Janet Reno said, "The jury has spoken, and justice has prevailed in Los Angeles."

The jurors, who had been sequestered since opening statements Feb. 25 and had deliberated since April 10, told U.S. District Judge John G. Davies in a note at 3 p.m. PDT Friday that they had reached unanimous verdicts. Davies, sensitive to public appeals by Mayor Tom Bradley and other officials for advance warning so police could be mobilized, sealed the verdicts and sent jurors back to their hotel.

Davies called the early-morning session, saying from the bench, "This is an unusual time to convene a court session, but it's probably a convenient time under the circumstances."

Although Davies had decided Friday to allow radio broadcast of the verdicts from the courtroom, unprecedented in federal criminal trials, he changed his mind today after prosecutors objected. However, the verdicts could be heard on broadcasts from the courthouse pressroom, where most of the trial has been piped in on speakers.

Koon, 43, a 16-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, sat impassively as court clerk James Holmes took the verdicts from a red folder and read them aloud. The only defendant to take the stand in the federal trial, Koon testified that he took "full responsibility" for all of the officers' actions, which he insisted fully complied with LAPD policy.

"Koon said if you are going to blame anyone, blame me, and that's what they did," said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who attended the trial. "The jury didn't sweep everyone in. They gave Wind the benefit of the doubt, and Briseno, who tried to stop the beating."

Powell, 30, a member of the LAPD since 1987, turned ashen when the Koon verdict was announced, apparently in recognition that he also would be found guilty. Much of the testimony in the trial focused on Powell, accused of striking King in the head.

Michael P. Stone, a former police officer and the attorney who represented Powell in both trials, sat with one arm around Powell during the proceedings. He squeezed Powell's shoulder and then the hand of Powell's girlfriend when the verdict against him was read.

The most overtly emotional person in the courtroom was Briseno, whose videotaped testimony from the first trial that Powell struck King in the head formed the core of the prosecution's rebuttal case. But Briseno said in this testimony that Powell's blow occurred accidentally as King charged him. Braun said Briseno was crying because "he believed to the depth of his soul that (Koon and Powell) were innocent."

Koon and Powell could receive prison sentences of as many as 10 years and fines of $250,000. But Dan Caplis, a criminal lawyer who monitored the trial, said that, under federal guidelines, Powell probably would receive a two- to four-year sentence and Koon a sentence of two years or less.

Davies set sentencing for Aug. 4 and allowed Koon and Powell to remain free on $5,000 bail. Clymer said the government did not oppose this because neither officer is thought likely to flee.

Koon, Powell and Briseno face hearings before the LAPD Board of Rights to determine eligibility for back pay or reinstatement. They have been suspended without pay since the incident.

While Briseno, 40, has been acquitted twice, Braun hinted that it was unlikely he would ever work again as a street officer no matter what the rights board finds. "If you're a policeman and you hesitate, it could be deadly," he said.

Wind, 32, who did not testify in either trial, has not found work since he was fired, he told reporters last week. Powell was his training officer the night of the beating.

King, 28, who testified as a prosecution witness after not being called during the Simi Valley trial, spent the day with his family, according to his attorney, Milton Grimes. He has a multimillion-dollar civil suit pending against the city of Los Angeles but has generally stayed out of sight since the beating, in which he suffered 15 broken facial bones and other injuries.

Grimes said King, a high school dropout, is working on graduating. On Tuesday, at the invitation of two players, King attended the Los Angeles Dodgers home opener at Dodger Stadium, where he once worked as an usher.

Prosecutors at both trials portrayed Powell as callous, citing a nurse's statement that the officer had joked with King about playing "a game of hardball" on King's head while he awaited treatment at Pacifica Hospital after the beating.

The prosecution used such bits of evidence in an effort to show that Powell, particularly, had treated King in a cavalier manner. Koon acknowledged under Clymer's cross-examination that Powell had disobeyed a direct order to take King from one hospital to another and instead detoured to the Foothill Police Station.

A Los Angeles officer testified that, while he was at that station, Powell told "war stories" in the detectives' room while a battered and trussed-up King waited in a patrol car guarded by Wind.

The beating incident began shortly after midnight when Melanie and Tim Singer, married California Highway Patrol officers, spotted King's white Hyundai speeding on a freeway. They pursued, clocking his car at speeds of more than 100 mph, and the eight-mile chase ended when King left the freeway and stopped at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street near a wooded area.

King, on parole for robbery, testified that he was fleeing because he did not want to be returned to prison for violating parole.

After the chase, King's two passengers complied with police orders to lie face down on the ground and were handcuffed. But Melanie Singer testified that King waved at a police helicopter overhead, did a little dance and wiggled his right buttock at her. When he finally got down on the ground, she advanced with gun drawn but was ordered away by Koon, who directed Powell, Briseno and two other officers to jump on King and handcuff him.

King threw the officers off his back and also failed to stop when Koon fired two rounds of darts into him from an electronic stun gun. About this time, amateur cameraman George Holliday, awakened by sirens and the helicopter, began shooting his now-famous videotape from the balcony of his apartment 175 feet away.

During the next 82 seconds, the tape showed King's charge at Powell, who responded by hitting King with his baton. In an emotional high point of the federal trial here, Melanie Singer said she would remember Powell hitting King in the head "until the day I die." The tape then shows Powell and Wind raining baton blows on a prostrate King. Koon testified that he ordered the blows to stop King from rising and possibly being shot. He said the beating ended only when King begged officers to stop.

When portions of the videotape were shown on television, they touched off a national furor that led to an investigation of the LAPD, eventual resignation of police chief Daryl F. Gates and state indictments that produced the Simi Valley trial and led to the riots.

At a news conference today, Clymer said the verdicts sent a message to police that officers "can use force that is reasonable and necessary to make an arrest, no more."

The message should go beyond Los Angeles, said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, who urged changes in laws to facilitate the prosecution of officers using excessive force.

Elaine Jones, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that police brutality is a national problem and that the King case pricked the American conscience only because of the videotape.

But Koon's lawyer, Ira Salzman, saw a more dangerous message in the verdicts, saying, "Justice is not a circus. This is not Rome. . . . Stacey Koon is not some sacrificial animal to be cast aside for peace in Los Angeles."

One of the jurors, whose identities were kept secret, told KNBC-TV that fear of triggering another riot was not discussed in deliberations. "Sometimes we forgot the scope of violence that could be accomplished from our verdicts," the juror said.

Braun, a criminal lawyer representing a police officer for the first time, said the verdicts would make police more cautious.

"Law enforcement has to realize that the public is schizophrenic," Braun said. "They want to sleep at home at night, but they don't want to know what it takes."

Davies set sentencing for Aug. 4 after Clymer rejected a late July date because it would conflict with his scheduled honeymoon. When Clymer suggested earlier in July, Davies said no, apparently because it could coincide with the July 14 state trial of three defendants accused of beating truck driver Reginald O. Denny in last spring's riots.

Staff writer Mary Jordan in Washington and special correspondent Jessica Crosby contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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