Los Angeles Police Officers' Trials: 1992 & 1993
Los Angeles Police Officers' Trials: 1992
Defendants: Theodore J. Briseno, Stacey C. Koon, Laurence M. Powell, and Timothy E. Wind
Crimes Charged: First trial: Assault, excessive force by a police officer, and filing false report; Second trial: Violating civil rights
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Paul DePasquale, Darryl Mounger, and Michael P. Stone; second trial: Harland W. Braun, Paul DePasquale, Ira M. Salzman, and Michael P. Stone
Chief Prosecutor: First trial: Terry L. White; second trial: Steven D. Clymer, and Barry F. Kowalski
Judges: First trial: Stanley M. Weisberg; second trial: John G. Davies Places: First trial: Simi Valley, California; second trial: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trials: First trial: March
4—April 29, 1992; second trial: February 3—
April 17, 1993
Verdict: First trial: Not guilty; jury deadlocked on one charge against Powell; Second trial: Koon and Powell, guilty; Briseno and Wind, not guilty
Sentence: Koon and Powell sentenced to 30 months imprisonment each.
SIGNIFICANCE: What was already one of the highest profile cases in American legal history assumed landmark proportions when a second jury had to wrestle not only with questions of guilt or innocence, but how best to assuage outraged civic sensibilities.
In the early hours of March 3, 1991, motorist Rodney King was stopped by Los Angeles, California, police officers following a three mile high speed chase. According to arrest reports filed later, King refused orders to exit the car, then put up such a struggle that officers had to use batons and stun-guns to subdue him. However, unbeknownst to police, the entire incident had been captured on video by a nearby resident, and the resulting 81-second tape told a different story. In it King seemed to offer little resistance as several officers kicked and beat him to the ground while a dozen of their colleagues looked on. Public outrage led to a grand jury investigation and indictments against four officers for assault and use of excessive force.
Because of the extraordinary pretrial publicity, a defense motion to move the proceedings from Los Angeles succeeded, and on March 4, 1992, the trial began in suburban Simi Valley. In his opening speech, chief prosecutor Terry L. White referred to falsified reports submitted after the incident as evidence that the police had realized the illegality of their conduct and had tried to conceal it. But it was the evidence of another California Highway Patrol officer, Melanie Singer, which yielded the most prosecutorial advantage. She testified that defendant Laurence Powell had unnecessarily struck King six times with his metal baton. "He had it in a power swing and he struck the driver right across the top of the cheekbone, splitting his face from the top of his ear to his chin," she said. "Blood spurted out." Singer did say that defendants Koon and Briseno tried to restrain Powell from further beating King.
King, a tall, heavyset man and former convict, was never called to the stand by the prosecution, a decision reportedly based on prosecution fears that he would make a poor impression on jurors.
Under questioning, Briseno admitted that he did not consider King's actions to be threatening, and he repeatedly described codefendants Powell and Wind as "out of control." He further blamed Sergeant Stacey Koon, the highest ranking officer present, for not intervening.
It was the defense contention that the officers had believed King to be under the effects of PCP, a powerful hallucinogenic, and therefore extremely dangerous. (King had acknowledged that he had been drinking, but there was no evidence he had taken any drugs.) In his closing statement, defense attorney Michael P. Stone said of the tape, "We do not see an example of unprovoked police brutality. We see, rather, a controlled application of baton strikes, for the very obvious reason of getting this man into custody."
The jury clearly agreed. On April 29, 1992, they returned not-guilty verdicts for all defendants, deadlocking on only one charge against Powell.
A City in Flames
The verdict rocked Los Angeles. Within hours the city erupted in rioting that left 58 people dead and caused $1 billion in damage. In the aftermath of this tragedy the U.S. government filed charges of civil rights violations against the four officers.
Prosecutors Barry F. Kowalski and Steven D. Clymer faced an uphill task when the second trial began in Los Angeles on February 3, 1993: convincing a jury that the officers had deliberately intended to deprive Rodney King of his constitutional rights. But first they had to select that jury.
The absence of black jurors in the state trial had kindled a firestorm of criticism, but on this occasion a more ethnically diverse panel was selected. In his opening argument, Clymer declared "Rodney King is not on trial." "The issue of whether he was guilty or innocent that night is not the issue in this trial. What we will tell you is that while he was being beaten while he was on the ground he didn't kick a police officer, he didn't punch a police officer, he didn't grab a police officer, he didn't injure a police officer."
Confirmation of this came from Dorothy Gibson, an eyewitness. "He [King] was lying on the ground, face down with his hands stretched out like a cross shape." Another eyewitness, Robert Hill, described hearing King scream in pain as officers beat him.
Sergeant Mark Conta, an expert on police procedure with the LAPD, condemned the tactics used. "It is my opinion that it was a clear violation of Los Angeles police policy." Conta singled out Koon for special criticism. "He should have stopped this and should have taken care of his officers when they needed him most."
Following the first trial it was widely believed that the prosecution had miscalculated by not putting King on the witness stand. On this occasion he did testify and made an effective witness.
Describing his actions to Kowalski, King said, "I was just trying to stay alive, sir." King admitted that he had responded defiantly when the officers began baiting him, chanting, "What's up, nigger? How do you feel, killer?" "I didn't want them to know that what they were doing was getting to me—I didn't want them to get any satisfaction." He described the baton blows as feeling "like you would get up in the middle of the night and jam your toe … on a piece of metal. That's what it felt like every time I got hit."
Throughout a grueling day of cross-examination, King did much to dispel earlier defense depictions of him as a menacing brute. Even when defense attorney Michael Stone drew an admission from him that he had lied to investigators when he denied driving drunk on the night of the beating, King managed to salvage the situation, saying that, as a parolee, he had been afraid of being returned to prison.
Another defense team member, Harland W. Braun, hammered away at King's varied and contradictory versions of events that night, implying that King had appended the assertions of racial epithets to enhance his civil suit against the city of Los Angeles. "You can become a rich man," said Braun, suggesting that King stood to gain $50 million in the suit.
King did admit to a faulty memory: "Sometimes I forget things that happened and sometimes I remember things," conceding an uncertainty about whether the taunts leveled at him had actually included the word "nigger." "I'm not sure. I believe I did hear that." In earlier grand-jury testimony, King had made no mention of racial slurs.
Braun was incredulous. "As an Afro-American who admittedly was beaten, you would forget that police officers called you nigger?… The fact is that you were trying to improve your case or lawsuit and really didn't care about the impact it would have on anyone else!"
The assault was continued by Paul DePasquale, attorney for Timothy Wind, who also highlighted King's hazy recollection of events by referring to an interview in which King had erroneously claimed that he was handcuffed all through the beating. Despite these inconsistencies, Rodney King left the stand largely undiminished and having impressed the majority of those present.
In a strange turn of events, officer Melanie Singer was again called, this time for the defense, but the content and manner of her testimony yielded a bonanza for the prosecution. Defense attorneys could only stand aghast as she tearfully condemned their clients' conduct. It was a devastating setback.
Now only the defendants could help themselves. Stacey Koon was first to take the stand. Insisting that his actions were a textbook example of how to subdue an aggressive suspect, the sergeant said, "My intent at that moment was to cripple Rodney King … that is a better option than going to deadly force." Koon maintained that "He [King] made all the choices. He made all the wrong choices." In a cool, confident voice, Koon continued, "This is not a boxing match. We had a tactical advantage and we keep the tactical advantage, and we do not give it up. The tactical advantage is Rodney King is on the ground and we are going to keep him on the ground."
The prosecution was denied an important line of inquiry when Judge John G. Davies barred Steven Clymer from raising allegedly racial passages included in a book written by Koon about the incident. Instead, Clymer could isolate only minor inconsistencies in Koon's testimony. "You are exaggerating, are you not, the amount of things you say happened?"
"No, sir," Koon replied firmly. "I am telling you my recollection."
To general astonishment, it was announced that none of the other defendants would testify. Which left only the closing arguments. Following these representations, Judge Davies gave the jury a careful reading of the complex law involved and they retired.
With the media, many public officials, and ordinary citizens predicting another round of riots if the four officers were acquitted, the tension built in Los Angeles as the jurors deliberated. Police officers were put on 12-hour shifts, and California Governor Pete Wilson mobilized National Guard units. Gun stores did business at breakneck speed as shopkeepers and residents set about protecting themselves. One week after jurors began deliberation on April 17, 1993, they were back. Koon and Powell were emotionless as their guilty verdicts were read out, while Briseno and Wind were acquitted. Koon and Powell were each sentenced to 30 months imprisonment on August 4, 1993.
On August 19, 1994, after a well-publicized and well-funded campaign on behalf of the convicted officers, a Federal Appeals Court upheld the convictions against Koon and Powell, and admonished Trial Judge John G. Davies for the leniency of the sentences.
Rodney King's civil suit against the city of Los Angeles concluded on April 19, 1994, when he was awarded damages of $3.8 million. His suit for punitive damages was declined by a jury on June 1, 1994.
Koon and Powell were released from prison in December 1995. Rodney King used some of the money he was awarded to form a record label. In 1996, King was convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge after he tried to throw his wife out of a moving car; he served 90 days in jail.
Few jury decisions have so affected everyday life as the verdicts in these two trials. The first prompted violence on an appalling scale, while an entire city held its breath awaiting the second. And yet, almost unmentioned in all of the turmoil, was the question of possible double jeopardy, and whether the officers should have been retried for essentially the same crime. As puzzling as the first verdict may have been, many felt that the subsequent federal trial was predicated more on outrage than the Constitution.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Boyer, Peter J. "The Selling of Rodney King." Vanity Fair. (July 1992): 78-83.
Duffy, Brian and Ted Gest. "Days of Rage." US Nerws & World Report. (May 11, 1992): 20-26.
Koon, Stacey and Robert Dietz. Presumed Guilty. Chicago, Regnery Gateway, 1992.
Prudhomme, Alex. "Police Brutality." Time (March 25, 1991): 16-19.