READY…SET…BURN PART TWO

The Story of the Trial of the LAPD Officers Who Beat Rodney King, and the Flames That Engulfed Los Angeles

THE TRIAL

Attorneys for the officers wanted to have the venue of the upcoming trial moved. The prosecution did not seem to worry about the defense’s strategy due to the fact that such motions were rarely granted. The prosecution was correct in their assumption when on May 16, trial judge Bernard Kammins denied the defense motion.

However, the California Court of Appeals would grant the defense motion in July, and remove Judge Kammins for bias. It was discovered that Kammins had sent an ex parte message to prosecutors that read, “Don’t’ panic, you can trust me.” The case was reassigned to Judge Stanley Weisberg. The defense received even more good news when Weisberg decided to schedule the trial in Simi Valley, a conservative and predominately white city in Ventura County, where many law enforcement officers and their families lived.

On February 3rd, 1992 the trial would begin. The jury selection would result in another victory for the defense. During selection many potential jurors appeared to be very pro-law enforcement, and espoused views that would favor the officers point of view. The prosecution hoped for some African American jurors, however by the time both sides had exhausted their strikes and selection was complete, the jury was composed of jury of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Filipino-American.

During his opening statement for the prosecution on March 5, 1992, Deputy District Attorney Terry White played the entire Holliday videotape. Jurors would see the same tape over and over again before the trial was over.

Opening statements by the four defense attorneys revealed a split in defense strategy. Darryl Mounger, attorney for Koon, and Michael Stone, portrayed King as to blame for the beating. Mounger told jurors that “Rodney King alone was in control of the situation.” On the other hand, John Barnett, attorney for Theodore Briseno, characterized Officer Powell as “out of control,” and told jurors that the videotape would show his client tried to intervene to stop the beating.

The prosecution saw CHP officer Melanie Singer, as its star witness. (King would not testify. He was too drunk to remember much about the beating, and putting him on the stand would open him up to cross-examination about his prior criminal offenses. Moreover, prosecutors feared King would lose his temper during cross-examination and antagonize jurors.) Singer testified, “Officer Powell came up to the right of [King] and in a matter of seconds, he took out his baton, he had it in a power swing, and he struck the driver across the top of his cheekbone, splitting the face from the top of his ear to his chin.” Asked by White whether “there any reason for the strike to the head by Officer Powell at the time he struck him,” Singer answered, “In my opinion, no sir, there was no reason for it.” In cross-examination, Powell’s attorney, Michael Stone, tried to cast doubt upon Singer’s account:

Stone: Well, you described in your earlier testimony…the skin was split from the ear to the chin, was that right?
Singer: Yes.
Stone: Does that [pointing to a hospital photo of King’s face] appear to be sutured in that photograph?
Singer: No, sir.
Stone: Does that appear to be split in that photograph?
Singer: No, sir.
Stone: Do you have any explanation for that?
Singer: I saw what I saw, sir.

The prosecution would call other witnesses to try to show the callousness of the officers involved, as well as show the jury the flagrant violations of police policy. They did use the racist and boastful messages taken from the in-car computers as a foundation to show the extreme nature of the officers involved.

The defense focused on the in-time perception of the defendants. Three of the defendants took the stand, Koon proved to be the most effective. He described the incident in detail and set a nerve racking and dangerous scene. Powell would claim to have been in fear for his life. The defense painted a frightening picture of Rodney King as well. They highlighted his record and provided testimony about his behavior that night. The defendants claim that he may have been on PCP (which blood analysis would show not to be true) seemed effective and provided a defense for the officers.

Defendant Theodore Briseno turned out to be a better witness for the prosecution than any witness called in their own case. He told jurors that he thought Powell “was out of control” and had “a look I’d never seen before.” In Briseno’s opinion, the beating was “excessive.” He said that he yelled to Powell to “get the hell off” King, but that Powell ignored him. “It was like he moved, they hit him,” Briseno testified. “I just didn’t understand what was going on out there…It didn’t make any sense to me.”

The only use of force shown on the videotape involving Briseno was a single stomp on King’s shoulders at about the time Powell was reaching for his handcuffs. Briseno testified that the stomp was an effort to get King down so that the other officers would stop their clubbing. He said he stomped on King–rather than put his knee on him, as LAPD policy dictates–because he feared getting accidentally struck by a baton if he lowered himself to his knees.

Both sides rested and began summations. The real fireworks came in the prosecutions rebuttal when White moved quickly across the courtroom coming within a few feet of Lawrence Powell and pointed a finger directly in his face.

(The following is an excerpt from Terry White’s rebuttal summation)

PROSECUTOR WHITE: You are the impartial judges of the facts in this case. And just as the judge is the judge of the law, you are the judges of the fact. And as judges you should remain impartial and not be an advocate for one side or the other. It is your job to call the evidence as you see it, to decide the case on the evidence and let the chips fall where they may no matter where they may fall.

This videotape it the central piece of evidence in this case. We don’t need to rely on Stacy Koon’s words. We don’t need to rely on Lawrence Powell’s words. We don’t need to rely on what they say happen that night. We don’t need to rely on what Mr. King says that night. We have the videotape and the videotape shows conclusively what occurred that night and it’s something that can’t be rebutted. It’s there for everyone to see. It is the most objective piece of evidence you can have. You have to determine what a reasonable person, acting as a police office, would have done in this particular situation. So it’s objective, not only do we…not only do we find out or determine what the officer was thinking, but then you have to determine as the tryor of fact; was the officer’s actions objectively reasonable.

On that videotape you see unnecessary brutality by Office Powell, unnecessary… excessive…unreasonable brutality by Officer Powell. From that first moment that videotape begins until Mr. King is handcuffed, Officer Powell is relentless in his baton blows to Mr. King. Relentless even though there are points and times that Mr. King is on the ground not doing anything but Officer Powell continues.

Now moving on to a Sgt. Koon. Earlier we briefly talked about aiding and abetting and an aider or abettor is just as liable for a crime as someone who directively and actively commits the act. This is a man the sergeant at the scene, who took charge of the situation from the beginning. From the moment that he stepped out of his car he was in charge of the situation. He ordered Melanie Singer back he says, “stay back we’ll handle this.” He ordered the use of force and by that I mean he ordered the first use of force. He ordered the first swarm in this particular incident. He ordered his officers to swarm or team tackle or gang tackle or however you want to call it. I believe in his report he said swarm Mr. King. He ordered the officers to go in and swarm. He also ordered the officers to ah…to get off that he was going to use a taser. Then he used the taser. He personally operated that taser. He personally used that use of force. Then the batons. He personally directed his officers were to strike in the use of those batons.

If you look at the tape and you determine at some point that a reasonable force has begun and Officer Wind strikes Mr. King after that point, Officer Wind kicks Mr. King after that point, he’s just as guilty as any of the other defendants.

Officer Briseno is being charged with only one …is being charged in counts one and two based on one stomp. That’s all he’s being charged…that’s…that’s his entire extent of his conduct that we are charging as far as a violation of the law. He’s not being charged as an aider and abettor of anyone. Um…he is not being charged for being responsible or being held responsible for anything Officer Powell did or Officer Wind did, or Sgt. Koon. He’s being charged based upon this one stomp that we’re gonna show. I think the thing that is important here…the thing you have to look at is at the point and time where Officer Briseno delivers this stomp to Mr. King. What is Mr. King doing at that point in time? We want you to look at this entire video. We want you to do what the defense doesn’t want you to do. They don’t want you to look at this entire video.

Commander was on the stand. The people’s expert, the people’s use of force expert. Did they ask him one question about this video? No, they didn’t. Did they show this entire video to their defense experts?– no they didn’t. They don’t want you to look at this entire video.

And according to Sgt. Duke, everything Mr. King did was aggressive. We went through this video on cross-examination, every point aggressive, aggressive, aggressive they continued to use the baton. This man is on the ground. Mr. King is on the ground and he is aggressive. Sgt. Duke says, “look his leg is cocked.” What is this…what is this cocked? His leg is bent. But the language that they say, “cocked,” is it makes it sound more aggressive. His leg is bent. His foots not flat. This is aggressive. What could this man do not to be aggressive? Did he have to be unconscious? As I read somewhere, someone said what did he have to do. Did he have to melt into the pavement? Did he have to melt into the cracks of the pavement for his not be aggressive. And at some point you have to look at that video and say enough is enough. Stop. Go in there and handcuff him. Stop this. This is not right. But they continued to hit him.

I issue a challenge to Mr. Stone, to Mr. Depasquel, to Mr. Mounger, to play this videotape for you and to point out things in this tape that justify the continued use of the baton. I don’t think they’ll do it. I think they are going to get their little frames out. They’re gonna to show 3:23:14. They’re going to show you 3:24:27. They’re gonna show you a frame here; they’re gonna show you a frame there. They’re not gonna show you the entire videotape. They probably won’t even play the entire videotape for you. Cause they are afraid of the videotape. They’re afraid because they know what that videotape shows. Now who are you gonna believe the defendants or your own eyes?….

Why is it every time, every piece of evidence, regarding Lawrence Powell as bad, it’s somebody else’s fault. It’s Terry White’s fault. It’s Allen Yochelson’ fault. It’s Ted Briseno’s fault. It’s Lawrence Davis’s fault. It’s never this man’s fault. Why not? This is the man…and look at him. This man laughed. [White walks away from podium and points at Powell]

STONE: Your Honor I have to object.

JUDGE WEISBURG: Mr. White get back to the podium please. Confine your argument to the podium.

PROSECUTOR WHITE: I’m sorry, your Honor.

PROSECUTOR WHITE: This man laughed. This man taunted. And he’s denying it? He’s denying it? How many times did we play that tape in here and was that not laughter? Was that not chuckling? Was that not giggling? Well what was funny out there? Desperate men do desperate things and these three defendants have been doing desperate things for the last six weeks. You don’t need to be an expert to look at that video and say that is wrong. That is bad. That is criminal….

FLAMES

At 3:15 P.M. on April 29, 1992, the clerk announced the jury’s verdicts. All three defendants were acquitted. Within two hours Los Angeles would be in flames.

Sixty-two minutes after the King verdict, five black male youths entered a Korean-owned Pay-less Liquor and Deli at Florence and Dalton Avenues. The youths each grabbed bottles of malt liquor and headed out the door, where they were blocked by the son of the store’s owner, David Lee. One young man smashed Lee on the head with a bottle, while two others shattered the storefront with their thrown bottles. One of the youths shouted, “This is for Rodney King!” The deadly Los Angeles riots of 1992 were underway.

When the rioting finally ended five days later, fifty-four people (mostly Koreans and Latinos) were dead–the greatest death toll in any American civil disturbance since the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City. Hundreds of people (including sixty firefighters) were injured. Looting and fires had resulted in more than one billion dollars in property damage. Whole neighborhoods in south central Los Angeles, such as Koreatown, looked like war zones. Over 7,000 persons were arrested.

Under the direction of President George H. W. Bush, the Justice Department would begin their own investigation into whether the officers had violated Rodney King’s civil rights. The officers would be put on trial in federal court. A federal jury would find Koon and Powell guilty and the judge would sentence them to thirty months in federal prison.

Rodney King would sue the City of Los Angeles and received a judgment for 3.8 million dollars. King said that notoriety he received from his beating and subsequent trial made life difficult. “I walk into a place wondering what people are thinking. Do they know who I am? What do they think about what happened? Do they blame me for all those people who died?”

King would struggle with alcoholism and have brushes with the law throughout the remainder of his life. On the morning of June 17, 2012, King’s fiancée Cynthia Kelly found him lying at the bottom of his swimming pool.

CONCLUSION

The Rodney King beating, trial of the officers, and Los Angeles riots, are a clear and visible memory for me. I will admit freely that at the time this occurred I viewed it all with an opinion for which I now find myself ashamed of later in life. I was just a teenager when this happened and I remember thinking that the claims of racism were just attempts to justify an unfair attack on police officers that were just doing their job. I sincerely felt that Mr. King was just some criminal that probably had it coming to him. I took it as an opportunity to align with law enforcement.

The truth is this was a racial event. I wasn’t taking up for law enforcement, I was taking up for what I perceived as just another attack on white people. This article has been a long time coming for me, a chance to reexamine the ignorance of my youth and educate myself with the facts. The fact is that when one examines the history of Los Angeles, the LAPD, and American attitudes and policies since the end of the Civil War, there can only be one conclusion…Cities were going to burn. It was only a matter of time, and in 1992 it was time for Los Angeles to be that city.

I wish I could conclude that this could never happen again. I wish I could say that now as an adult I live in a country that has moved passed the public racism of Jim Crow and the unspoken racism of a post-civil rights America. However, we all know that’s not true. The divides have gotten bigger, not smaller, and between larger number of factions. We find ourselves divided by more than just skin color, but a whole host of identities that we align ourselves to.

Just in last few years we have seen a suburban city in Missouri, and Baltimore burn. I wonder how many more American cities will burn before we stop doing this to ourselves and open our damn eyes.

'Officers Briseno and Powell with their attorneys and supporters enter court.'
'The riots following the verdict, claimed lives, businesses were destroyed, and the nation watched horrified.'
'Rodney King at a press conference after the rioting had begun, he famously stated, "People, I just want to say, can we all just get along?  Can we stop making it horrible?  We're all stuck here for a while.  Let's try to work it out."'
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