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King Is Awarded $3.8 Million in L.A. Police Beating

By William Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 1994; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, APRIL 19 -- A federal jury today awarded Rodney G. King $3.8 million in compensatory damages for his beating three years ago at the hands of Los Angeles police officers.

Lawyers for the city of Los Angeles had offered to pay King $800,000 for the injuries he suffered in the attack. King had asked for $15 million in his civil suit.

The beating incident, captured by a bystander in a videotape, eventually led to the trial of four white police officers, whose acquittal in April 1992 touched off three days of rioting in Los Angeles that left 54 persons dead.

King, 29, was not in the courtroom this afternoon when the jury announced its award of more than $3.8 million after almost four days of deliberations. Milton Grimes, King's attorney, said after talking to his client that King was "not disappointed" with the verdict.

City attorney James Hahn described the award "as all in all a satisfactory result," adding that "when you make both sides a little unhappy, the jury has done its job."

During three weeks of testimony, King's lawyers depicted the attack as a racist act that has permanently impaired King and made it impossible for him to lead a normal life. City lawyers in effect put King on trial, focusing on his troubled past and depicting him as an alcoholic and petty criminal whose problems predated the police beating.

Grimes said he is "still optimistic we'll reach the $15 million figure" in the second phase of the trial, which will begin Thursday. In that phase, the jury of one Native American, one African American, two Latinos and six whites will consider whether the officers involved in the attack and other defendants, including former police chief Daryl F. Gates, should be required to pay punitive damages to King.

A federal jury last year found two of the white officers guilty of violating King's civil rights, a verdict that seemed to put the King case to rest. But city officials refused to accept the size of the settlement sought by King's lawyers and when attempts to reach agreement broke down, the suit went to trial before U.S. District Judge John P. Davies, who presided at last year's trial.

The civil trial raised new questions about what happened the night of March 3, 1991, when King was pulled over for speeding and beaten after he allegedly resisted arrest.

During the federal trial last year, King testified that he thought police had called him "nigger" while beating him, but later said he was not sure. No other witness for either side supported his account. But in the civil case, King gave graphic testimony describing his beating and flatly asserted he had heard racial epithets from the officers as he lay on the ground.

Last week King's lawyers played the soundtrack of the videotape that had been enhanced to filter out background noise. A phrase that sounded like "Nigger, hands behind your back" could be heard in the courtroom.

But Judge Davies later told lawyers he would not admit the enhancement as evidence because the technology involved had not been sufficiently tested for credibility.

The epithets were a critical part of the contention by King's lawyers that King was beaten because he was black. They argued that King was just as much a symbol of the civil rights struggle as Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

"Rodney King was beaten because of his race," his lawyer said in the closing argument.

Lawyers for the city rejected the racial elements and said what was at issue was a simple tort claim. While conceding liability for King's beating, they sought to minimize his injuries and argued that any financial problems King faces are a result of problems he has brought on himself.

Staff writer Lou Cannon contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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