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National Guard Called to Stem Violence After L.A. Officers' Acquittal in Beating

By Lou Cannon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 1992; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, APRIL 29 -- This city was placed on riot alert tonight and the National Guard called out to curb spreading violence after a jury in nearby Simi Valley acquitted three white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.

The jury failed to reach a verdict on a single count involving a fourth officer.

Late tonight, as violence spread in south-central Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley declared a state of emergency and asked Gov. Pete Wilson to send in the National Guard. James Lee, a spokesman for the governor in Sacramento, said the Guard was being mobilized but gave no details as to its deployment.

Despite the evidence of a videotape showing more than 50 baton blows and kicks directed at King as he lay on the ground after being stopped for traffic violations March 3, 1991, the jury acquitted Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, 41, and officers Timothy E. Wind, 32, and Theodore J. Briseno, 39, of assault charges.

The jury, which included no blacks, also acquitted officer Laurence M. Powell, 29, who struck the most blows, on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and of filing a false police report. Koon too was acquitted of filing a false report.

The panel's unidentified forewoman told Judge Stanley M. Weisberg that the jurors, who began 32 hours of deliberations last Thursday, reached the verdicts Friday and had been deadlocked since then at 8 to 4 for acquittal on another charge accusing Powell of assault under color of police authority.

Weisberg said he would hold a hearing May 15 on whether Powell will be retried, as Deputy District Attorney Terry White requested.

In Washington, Justice Department officials said the verdict puts the department under pressure to proceed with a civil rights investigation of the beating. The FBI completed such an inquiry last year, but the department withheld a decision on bringing charges in deference to state prosecutors, department officials said.

In a statement last night, Assistant U.S. Attorney General John R. Dunne said the civil rights division and federal prosecutors in California "will now undertake a review of this incident to determine what, if any action, may be warranted under federal civil rights law."

Prosecutor White, who relied heavily on the videotape in his prosecution, said he "never imagined a not-guilty verdict on any of the counts for any of the defendants."

After presenting a low-key case against the officers, White followed a high-risk strategy in his closing argument before the six-man, six-woman jury. He confronted Powell directly, shouting, "This man laughed, this man taunted him, and he's denying it . . . what was funny out there?"

White was referring to taunts that nurses testified Powell made in the hospital after the beating, telling King, a part-time usher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, that Powell had "hit some home runs" on him with his metal police baton.

Michael Stone, Powell's attorney, called White's confrontational approach a "stunt," and there was concern in prosecution circles that it had backfired.

King, who did not testify at the trial, has filed a separate civil suit. "My client and I are just outraged," his lawyer, Steve Lerman, said. "It sends a bad message. It says it's okay to go ahead and beat somebody when they're down and kick the crap out of them."

The jurors, whose anonymity was protected throughout the trial, declined to discuss the verdicts or talk to reporters. Driven away from the suburban Ventura County courthouse in a heavily guarded bus, they issued a statement through the court spokesman saying their decision had been "an extremely difficult and stressful one, one which we have all agonized over a great deal."

Bradley criticized jurors, saying they "asked us to accept the senseless and brutal beating of a helpless man."

The verdicts stunned observers in the courtroom, to which Weisberg moved the trial after an appeals court granted the defendants a change of venue on grounds that an explosive political situation existed in Los Angeles where the beating occurred. Few blacks live in Simi Valley, long known as a bedroom community for retired police and firefighters.

Benjamin L. Hooks, national leader of the NAACP, denounced the verdict as "outrageous, a mockery of justice," but he appealed to blacks that "the decision be met with calmness."

Reaction at the courthouse divided sharply along racial lines.

Linda Johnson Phillips, who is black and attended the trial, called the verdicts "appalling" and said they show that "the color of your skin determines the degreee of justice you get . . . . What am I going to tell my 12-year-old daughter?"

Carol Decker, a white observer, said she was surprised and "very glad" about the outcome.

Compton City Council member Patricia Moore, a southern California black leader who had warned of disturbances if there were no convictions, said angrily:

"What are we going to tell our our people? What are we going to tell the community. We're going to ask them to please stay as calm as possible, but that's not going to work. We've got to give them some answers. We've got to give them some remedies. Where are the remedies?"

Don Jones, a retired black who had been sleeping in his truck outside the courtroom during the eight-week trial, said, "I'm dumbstruck. The video told everything. I could see the video. Ray Charles could see the video."

Angry yelling broke out in the parking lot outside the courtroom between groups of blacks and whites who had been anxiously awaiting the verdicts.

The defendants greeted the verdicts stoically, but members of their families cried and hugged each other as the verdicts were read.

Unknown to the officers on the night of the beating, their actions were being videotaped by George Holliday, an amateur cameraman who had been awakened by a police helicopter hovering noisily over the scene and brightly lighting it. Holliday rushed to the balcony of his Lake View Terrace apartment and began taping the incident from 175 feet away.

The prosecution and defense agreed that King was drunk at the time of his arrest, with a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the California legal limit. Prosecutors said that, because of his intoxication and his injuries, which included multiple facial fractures and a broken leg, King could not have recalled clearly what happened the night he was beaten, so they did not call him as a witness.

But Briseno, accused of delivering a single kick to King, gave powerful testimony. He charged that Powell and Wind, who hit King 56 times with their batons during an 81-second period, were "out of control." Briseno said he had put his foot on King to keep him down and prevent Powell and Wind from possibly beating him to death.

The Holliday videotape unleashed widespread criticism of the LAPD and touched off a political upheaval that still continues in the city. At the center of the storm was Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who has headed the department since 1978 and frequently been criticized for insensitivity to alleged police racism.

Gates apologized for the beating but called it an "aberration." He fired Wind, a probationary officer, and suspended the others without pay.

Mayor Bradley, a former police officer and longtime Gates critic, tried to force the chief to retire. Gates resisted, and his supporters said Bradley should step down instead.

Later, however, Gates agreed to retire in June, and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams was chosen April 16 to replace him. Williams will be the first black to head the LAPD and the first outsider in more than 40 years.

Staff writers Lynne Duke and Sharon LaFraniere in Washington, Al Kamen and Ruben Castaneda in Los Angeles and special correspondent Leef Smith contributed to this report.

Chronology of Events in King Case

March 3, 1991: Lake View Terrace resident George Holliday uses a video camera to record police beating King after a high-speed chase.

March 7: King freed after prosecutors decline to file charges. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates recommends prosecution for three officers and pledges to discipline others.

March 15: Grand jury indicts Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno. Charges include assault under color of authority, assault with great bodily injury, excessive force and filing false police reports.

March 20: Mayor Tom Bradley urges Gates to resign.

March 26: Officers plead not guilty.

March 27: Gates asks retired state Supreme Court justice John Arguelles to head a panel to examine excessive-force incidents and recommend reforms.

March 30: Bradley appoints former U.S. deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher to head a panel to investigate police practices.

April 4: Police Commission suspends Gates for 60 days. Arguelles and Christopher panels merge into single commission.

April 5: City Council orders Gate's reinstatement.

May 7: Gates fires Wind and suspends Koon, Powell and Briseno without pay.

July 9: Christopher Commission reports evidence of brutality and racism in the police force. It blames deficient management, suggests that Gates retire and recommends imposing a term limit on future chiefs.

July 22: Gates says he will retire in April 1992 if his replacement is chosen by then. He later postpones that to June, saying he wants to fight term limits and other reforms on the June 2 city ballot.

Nov. 22: Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg is appointed to the case.

Nov. 26: Weisberg orders the trial held in neighboring Ventura County.

Feb. 5, 1992: Jury selection begins.

March 5: Opening arguments begin, and Briseno's attorney says other officers were "out of control."

March 17: The prosecution rests without calling King to stand.

March 19: Koon defends baton use as "a managed and controlled use of force."

April 1: Powell compares the King encounter to a "matador-and-bull type situation."

April 3: Briseno denounces his codefendants, says he tried to stop the beating.

April 9: LAPD Cmdr. Michael Bostic, an expert on use of force, says most of the baton blows were unreasonable and unnecessary.

April 20: Closing arguments begin.

April 24: Jury deliberations begin.

April 29: Jury returns not-guilty verdicts on 10 of 11 counts; mistrial declared on the other count.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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