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Two L.A. officers convicted, two acquitted in King trial

By
ELKA WORNER

LOS ANGELES -- A federal court jury convicted two Los Angeles police officers and acquitted two others of violating the civil rights of Rodney King during his 1991 arrest and beating, it was announced Saturday.

Thousands of police and sheriff's deputies were deployed on Los Angeles streets in preparation for the verdicts, but the city remained calm and police reported fewer emergency calls than usual.

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The federal court jury of eight men and four women found Sgt. Stacey Koon, 42, guilty of permitting excessive force during the March 3, 1991, arrest of King that followed a police chase when the black motorist was spotted speeding.

Laurence Powell, 30, was found guilty of using excessive force; Officer Theodore Briseno, 40, and fired rookie Timothy Wind, 32, were found innocent of using excessive force.

All three were found innocent of a second charge of aiding and abetting the other officers in the beating.

Koon and Powell face up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Sentencing was scheduled for Aug. 4.

When the verdicts were read, Powell's attorney Michael Stone put his arm around his client and squeezed his shoulder. Powell appeared pale and nodded his head when the guilty verdict was read by courtroom clerk Jim Holmes.

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A restrained Koon stared straight ahead with his head tilted after the guilty verdict was read.

Wind hung his head and showed no emotion when he was acquitted.

All four officers were escorted out a side door of the courtroom.

Briseno's attorney Harland Braun said his client was weeping as the verdicts were read.

'And now he will just go home and cry,' he said.

Justice Department attorney Barry Kowalski, who was the lead prosecutor in the case, said, 'I think a year ago the conscience of the community and nation cried out for justice. And this verdict provides justice.'

The jury was sequestered and remained anonymous during the trial.

In an interview with KNBC-TV several hours after the verdicts, one juror, who spoke with his back to the camera, said he had no doubt Koon and Powell were guilty.

'I feel that Koon did not do his job, and I hold Koon responsible for the worst that happened out there,' he said. 'If both defendants were found guilty, he was the guiltiest.

'I think that Powll was a very callous individual, that he's the type of policeman you don't want out on the street.'

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The juror said the videotape of the beating was the most convincing piece of evidence.

'I think the tape basically speaks for itself,' he said.

Koon's attorney Ira Salzman said he did not think the verdict was just.

'Justice is not a circus and my client is not some sacrificial animal to cast aside for the peace of Los Angeles,' said Salzman who planned to file a motion for a new trial.

'There's a great deal of disappointment and sadness and Stacey certainly responded to it better than myself,' Salzman said, his voice trembling.

The four white officers had been charged with violating King's civil rights to protection from excessive force during an arrest.

Before the verdict was read, U.S. District Judge John Davies said the jury reached its verdict Friday at 3:35 p.m. PDT, after 40 hours of deliberations over seven days. The verdict, however, was kept secret until Saturday.

'The jury expressed a desire to change and clean-up before reappearing in court,' Davies said during the 7 a.m. session. 'I took that opportunity to send them back to the hotel and to have the verdicts sealed.'

Koon, the top ranking officer, shot King with a Taser stun gun and watched as the other three officers beat him with batons and kicked him. The beating, videotaped by a witness who lived nearby, stunned television viewers around the world and shook up Los Angeles city politics.

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The defendants' state trial on assault and excessive force charges ended April 29, 1992, with acquittals on all but one excessive force count against Powell. The District Attorney's Office has decided to drop that charge.

The verdicts sparked three days of rioting in Los Angeles that left 53 people dead and caused $2 billion in damage.

Los Angeles was tense as the trial drew to a close, with 6,500 police officers, several thousand sheriff's deputies and about 600 National Guard troops poised to prevent a repeat of the deadly violence.

Braun said Briseno would fight to 'clear his name' with the Police Department and to get his back pay.

'I'm not sure psychologically he (Briseno) could ever go back on the street,' Braun said.

Briseno, Koon and Powell have been on an unpaid leave of absence. Wind, a probationary officer, had been sacked.

President Clinton said the legacy of the King case should be a recommitment by the nation to the civil rights of all Americans.

'This verdict was a tribute...to the jury and the federal government that put the case together,' he told a crowd in Pittsburgh, where he was to discuss his jobs-creating economic stimulus package.

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Gov. Pete Wilson told a news conference in Los Angeles that, 'Justice has been done whether they (people) agree with the verdicts or not.'

Milton Grimes, Rodney King's attorney, said he plans to file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city and Police Department. He has already rejected the city's settlement offer for damages.

In reaction to the verdict, Grimes said he still believes all four officers are guilty. 'If you are thirsty, you want a full glass of water,' he said.

Mayor Tom Bradley and Police Chief Willie Williams held a joint news conference in which the mayor said, 'We have now seen in this case the fulfillment of the system of justice.'

'There's a sense of relief in this community -- justifiably so,' Bradley said.

Williams said police officers will work 12 hour shifts for at least the next 24 hours.

'I believe the rebuilding of Los Angeles has begun,' Williams said. 'The men and women who live in this community have made a committment that what happened last year won't happen again.'

Earlier, former Police Chief Daryl Gates, who has been blamed for not adequately preparing the Police Department for last year's riots and for alienating the black community, expressed his unhappiness with the verdicts during his radio talk show.

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'It's amazing to see jubilation over this,' Gates said. 'there's some people who I know are going to be very sad over this decision, but we will not go out and riot.'

Asked to respond to Gates's comments, Bradley said, 'Daryl Gates is irrelevant to this city and this issue.'

Williams said police were ready to make similar preparations for the upcoming Reginald Denny assault trial, which could become as volatile for Los Angeles.

Three black men are charged with attempted murder in the assault of white trucker Denny at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, considered the flashpoint of the spring riots. The defendants, who were videotaped during the assault by television news crews, are scheduled for trial in July.

'We will evaluate future events as they come,' Williams said.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in Washington said, 'The jury has spoken and justice has prevailed.'

'I wish to thank the dedicated federal prosecutors who have done so much to see that justice was done,' she said.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said he felt 'relief' at the guilty verdicts, but said the King case is only 'one of 47,000' police brutality cases around the country. He said Los Angeles, still scarred by last year's riots, needed long-term 'solutions' to help it heal.

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'It was a delight that the key forces were found to be guilty, but the focus (of preparation for the verdicts) has been on law and order. The solutions must be on jobs, education and health care,' said Jackson, who went to the African Methodist Episcopal church in South Central Los Angeles to hear the verdicts. A crowd gathered in the church burst into jubilant applause when the verdicts were read.

Federal prosecutors accused the officers of beating King excessively and then covering up with lies and false police reports.

Defense attorneys claimed the officers feared King, believing he was under the influence of PCP, a hallucinogenic drug that makes a user extremely violent. The officers said King was 'aggressive and combative' during his arrest.

But prosecutors, noting he tested negative for PCP, said King never posed a threat to the officers, even though he was 'drunk and acted stupid.'

Koon was the only officer to testify in the federal trial. He accepted full responsibility for each and every baton blow and stomp to King's body.

Briseno refused to take the stand in this case, but prosecutors were permitted to play portions of his videotaped state trial testimony for the federal jury. He testified that Powell appeared to strike King in the head several times with his baton and that King was not resisting arrest during much of the beating.

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Prosecutors presented medical evidence and eyewitnesses to show King suffered his most serious injuries from baton blows to the head. The officers contended King's facial bones were broken when he fell to the pavement.

Police Department policy forbids officers from intentionally clubbing a suspect in the head because of the potential for long-term or even fatal injury. None of the police reports referred to blows to King's head.

Prosecutors said in closing arguments the omission of that information demonstrates that the defendants engaged in a coverup, not realizing their actions were captured on videotape.

King, who did not testify in the state trial, captivated jurors with two days of testimony in the federal trial.

King said he was merely trying to stay alive during the beating and tried to comply with orders. He also said the officers told him to run and chanted racial epithets during the beating, an allegation denied by the defendants.

King said he was not sure whether the officers said 'What's up, killer?' or 'What's up, nigger?'

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