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Four officers acquitted in King beating, riots break out

By
JENNIFER ROWLAND

SIMI VALLEY, Calif., April 29, 1992 (UPI) -- In a stunning climax to a year of turmoil for the Los Angeles Police Department, four white officers were acquitted Wednesday of nearly all charges for the videotaped beating of a black motorist, leaving the officers' supporters elated but many others outraged.

The sequestered jury of six men and six women -- comprising 11 whites and one Filipino -- reached their verdicts in the notorious Rodney King beating trial after seven days of deliberations in the East Ventura County Courthouse.

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But the jurors were unable to reach agreement on one count, the charge of excessive force under color of authority, against Officer Laurence Powell, 29, the training officer who repeatedly clubbed King with his steel baton during his March 3, 1991, arrest.

When they informed Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg they were deadlocked with four voting for conviction and eight for acquittal, the judge declared a mistrial on that count.

District Attorney Ira Reiner said no decision had been made yet as to whether Powell would be retried on that charge. A hearing was scheduled for May 15 in Los Angeles.

Powell and his co-defendants -- Sgt. Stacey Koon, 41, and officers Theodore Briseno, 39, and Timothy Wind, 32 -- were cleared of the remaining charges in the five-count grand jury indictment.

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They had been charged in the seven-week trial with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive force under color of authority. In addition, Koon, the ranking officer at the scene, and Powell, were charged with filing false police reports, allegedly for covering up the extent of the injuries King sustained.

Koon also was charged with being an accessory after the fact to the assault and excessive force.

If convicted of all the charges, Powell could have been imprisoned for up to seven years, eight months. Wind faced a possible seven-year term, while Koon could have been sentenced to four years, eight months. Briseno, who was shown on the tape stomping King once on his neck while he was on the ground, could have been imprisoned for up to four years.

The acquittals sent shock waves through minority communities, and many were outraged by what they saw on the amateur videotape of the beating, which was the centerpiece of the prosecution's case and gave rise to an unprecedented review of Police Department policies.

As Koon left the courthouse in this normally quiet suburb, he was swarmed by photographers and reporters and taunted by trial watchers who clearly were angry over the verdicts. Ventura County Sheriff's deputies surrounded the sergeant and helped him push through the mob.

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At a state dinner Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., President Bush appealed for calm in Los Angeles' black communities, where angry youths looted at least one liquor store and set fire to a car and at least one small business.

''The only thing I would say about that (the verdict) is an appeal for calm and reason in the country,'' Bush said. ''The court system has worked and what's needed now is calm and respect for the law. Citizens of good will have the same view.''

Several people were beaten, including one young man who was dragged from his car, kicked and pummeled with rocks, and radio reporter Bob Brill who was dragged from a phone booth while he was feeding his story on the riot.

Brill managed to get back to his car and drive to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for a broken thumb and bruises. The other man was led away from his attackers by passers-by.

The notorious 81-second videotape, shot from an apartment across the street from the scene of the beating, was turned over to a local TV station and broadcast repeatedly worldwide.

It documented 56 blows to King's body as he was being arrested following a high-speed chase. King, a 27-year-old unemployed construction worker on parole from a robbery conviction, suffered facial fractures, brain damage, a broken leg and other injuries.

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Prosecutor Terry White presented the tape as the pivotal piece of evidence in the case. Since the officers were indicted less than two weeks after the incident, legal experts predicted the officers were bound to be convicted once a jury saw the video.

But jurors apparently were left with a measure of ''reasonable doubt, '' the strict threshhold for conviction.

The jury refused to meet with reporters, issuing a statement through the court. The panel said their job has been extremely difficult and stressful, and they have agonized a great deal.

''We feel we have done the very best job we all could have done.''

In their defense, Powell and Wind argued that King appeared to be under the influence of the drug PCP because he was combative and refused to comply with their orders. They maintained the beating was ''a managed and controlled'' use of force and within department policy.

King later was found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 percent, more than double the legal limit for California drivers, but drug tests were negative.

The officers, who were visibly tense during the trial and the suspenseful days of deliberations, smiled broadly after Weisberg adjourned the trial and turned to embrace family members and friends in the front row of the courtroom.

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''I'm going to relax for the first time in a year,'' said Powell. ''There's still a little bit hanging there (the mistrial), but I'm still innocent.''

But others, including King, were dismayed by the verdicts.

''He's in a state of shock -- he's speechless,'' attorney Steve Lerman said of King. Lerman, who is representing King in a multimillion-dollar suit against the city and the Police Department, said he spoke with King by phone within minutes of the verdicts being announced.

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas called the verdicts ''a crushing blow to the dignity to every citizen of Los Angeles, regardless of their race, religion, sex or age.''

Councilman Michael Woo, a staunch opponent of Police Chief Daryl Gates, said, ''This is one of the saddest days in this city.''

''I thought we had gone beyond the days when the Police Department could let violence go unchecked,'' he said.

Gates has been under fire from critics who hold him accountable for the actions of the four officers as well as acts of unchecked racism and brutality uncovered last year by the independent Christopher Commission investigation. He is expected to retire at the end of June.

''This is no vindication for Daryl Gates,'' Woo said. ''If anything, it should tell us that the time for change has come.''

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Gates said, ''There are no winners in this situation.''

He said a three member Board of Rights panel would decide whether to recommend disciplinary action against Briseno, Koon and Powell. Wind, a rookie, was fired after the King beating.

Gates has final say on any disciplinary action taken, but he declined to comment on what he would do to the officers.

''I think its inappropriate for any one of us to make judgments. The jury has made its decision,'' he said.

Some black community leaders predicted in recent weeks that if all four men were acquitted, infuriated citizens would take to the streets in highly emotional, possibly violent protests. While the jury deliberated over the weekend, a number of Los Angeles churches held prayer vigils, calling for a peaceful community reaction no matter what the outcome.

In Lake View Terrace where King was arrested 13 months ago, residents took to the street soon after the verdicts were read, carrying placards and chanting, ''What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!'' One sign held by a black man read: ''There's justice -- just us.''

But Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie Williams, who will succeed Gates as chief, said he did not believe the acquittals would trigger racial unrest in Los Angeles.

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''I think the people of Los Angeles are very smart and very intelligent,'' Williams told reporters at the Philadelphia police station. ''I think they were prepared for whatever verdict came in and we won't have any problems.''

District Attorney Ira Reiner said the community must accept the jury's verdict, even though they may not agree with it.

''This is simply a time for sober reflection,'' he said. ''This is not a time to demonstrate and vent strong feelings.''

Bradley, who has been at the forefront of efforts to reform the Police Department and force Gates' resignation, was stunned by the jury's decision.

''Today this jury told the world that what we saw with our own eyes wasn't a crime,'' the mayor said, referring to the videotape. ''Today that jury said we should tolerate such conduct.

''My friends, I'm here to tell this jury no, our eyes did not deceive us,'' he said in the televised message. ''We saw what we saw, and what we saw was a crime.''

But Bradley, who is black and a former Los Angeles policeman, appealed to the public to vent anger in positive ways, such as voting in June for an amendment to the City Charter that would overhaul the Police Department, rather than resorting to violence.

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The trial had been moved to Simi Valley, a predominantly white suburb, after a state appeals court agreed with defense attorneys' arguments that the jury pool in Los Angeles County had been tainted by the political fallout stemming from the incident.

The verdicts by the sequestered six-man, six-woman jury came after seven days of deliberations, ending more than a year of controversy that began when an amateur video camera operator unwittingly taped 81 seconds of batons blows and kicks against the black motorist by white officers.

Officers Laurence Powell, 29, and Timothy Wind, 32, were acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon for repeatedly beating King with their steel batons and kicking him, even after he was lying on the pavement.

Also acquitted was their supervisor, Sgt. Stacey Koon, 41, who stood on the sidelines directing the blows.

Koon, Wind and Briseno also were acquitted of excessive force under color of authority, but the jury was unable to agree on a verdict for Powell, who was captured on the videotape pummeling King with his steel baton, even after the motorist was on the pavement.

Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg declared a mistrial on the lone charge against Powell, but whether the District Attorney's Office would refile the charge remained to be seen.

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Koon and Powell also were cleared of filing false reports about the beating, which occurred when King was arrested for a high-speed chase on March 3, 1991.

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