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Riots follow acquittal of officers in King beating

By ELKA WORNER

LOS ANGELES, April 30, 1992 (UPI) -- Four white police officers were acquitted of beating a black motorist, touching off a rampage in the streets that killed at least nine people as hundreds of rioters dragged motorists from their cars, set scores of fires and stormed police headquarters.

Gov. Pete Wilson called out the National Guard because of the ''extreme peril'' and declared a state of emergency in the city. Mayor Tom Bradley, a former policeman who denounced the verdicts, imposed a sundown-to-sunrise curfew. He also banned gun and ammunition sales and the dispensing of gasoline in containers other than gas tanks.

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A sequestered jury of six men and six women -- comprising 11 whites and one Filipino -- reached their verdicts Wednesday after seven days of deliberations in Simi Valley. The case, which brought on a major review of the Police Department and the ouster of its chief, had been moved to Simi Valley because of the political and racial situation in Los Angeles.

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Two jurors, who asked to remain anonymous, defended their verdicts during separate interviews.

''After you sat through the trial with all the evidence, witnesses, everything that was there, the video, too, you had to see what was going on,'' one juror told NBC. ''Had Rodney King gotten out of his vehicle as ordered to do and complied with the policeman's order, nothing would have happened to him.''

The other juror said on ABC's ''Nightline'' that race was not a factor in the decision and said, ''I have no regrets about the verdict. I'll sleep well tonight.''

The jury was 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.

Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg 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 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.

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 created shock waves among those outraged by what they saw on the amateur videotape of the beating. The tape was the centerpiece of the prosecution's case and gave rise to an unprecedented review of Police Department policies.

The worst violence Wednesday night and early Thursday was reported in predominantly black South Los Angeles, downtown and Inglewood, where bands of young people threw rocks and bottles at passing motorists. At least two motorists were pulled out of their vehicles and beaten in South Los Angeles, and several reporters were attacked.

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One of the motorists suffered massive head injuries and was on life support systems at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital.

Inglewood police reported shooting six people, one of whom also died at Daniel Freeman, which treated 50 people for injuries suffered in the violence. At least 27 people were arrested.

KNBC-TV reported that at least 87 other people were also injured throughout the city.

South Los Angeles homicide detective John Mize said at least six other people were shot and killed by others in the riot and two were shot and killed by police at a housing project.

The Red Cross reported that about 25 elementary school students spent the night in their South Los Angeles school because of the violence.

Smoke from about 150 fires set over a wide area was so thick that planes were rerouted around Los Angeles International Airport.

A city firefighter was shot in the face while battling a blaze and was in fair condition.

The Rapid Transit District suspended bus service in the greater Los Angeles area until Thursday morning after four drivers and one passenger were injured in the street violence.

RTD spokesman Bill Heard said the decision was made because ''we can't guarantee the safety of our drivers and our passengers.''

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The violence brought back vivid memories of the August 1965 Watts riots, in which 34 people -- 29 of them black -- were killed, more than 1, 000 were injured and $200 million in property went up in flames. More than 700 fires were set. The riot started when a Highway Patrol officer arrested a man, a crowd gathered and the violence escalated into six days of rioting that devastated the area.

At least six people were arrested at police headquarters. Dozens more arrests were reported in other parts of the city.

President Bush issued a statement saying: ''Yesterday's verdict in the Los Angeles police case has left us all with a deep sense of personal frustration and anguish. Yet it is important that we respect the law and the legal processes that have been brought to bear in this case.

''... I call upon all citizens to be calm and to abide by the law as the legal process in this case continues.''

Bush was to meet with Attorney General William Barr to discuss the case.

Among the people beaten in South Los Angeles was UPI radio reporter Bob Brill who was struck in the back of the head with a beer bottle while feeding his story on the riot from an open telephone booth.

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Brill managed to get back to his car and drive to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for a broken thumb and bruises.

''They (the attackers) knocked me down and started stomping on me -- on my face,'' Brill said. ''The only thing I was thinking was what if they don't stop. It was hell out there. It really was.''

Investigators were investigating whether a massive brawl between 700 black and white inmates Wednesday night at Peter Pitchess Honor Rancho in Saugus was related to the King verdict. About 40 inmates were injured, but no guards were hurt.

The case against the four officers was based on an 81-second videotape shot from an apartment across the street from the scene of King's beating. The tape 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.

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.

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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.

''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.

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''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.''

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.

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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.

''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.''

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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.

The trial had been moved to Simi Valley, a predominantly white suburb, after a state appeal 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.

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