Los Angeles Police Trial Nears Long-Awaited End
BARRING a major surprise, the trial of four police officers charged in the beating of motorist Rodney King will go to the jury this week, possibly as early as Wednesday, legal experts say.
With the end of the case looming, city, county, state, and federal authorities are hastening to head off a possible repeat of the rioting that came after a not-guilty verdict in the state trial of the police officers in 1992.
In the current trial, prosecutors today begin their last opportunity to rebut 13 days of defense testimony, which ended abruptly last Thursday. Rebuttal proceedings should take one or two days, most experts say, followed by one to two days of closing arguments by both sides.
"This case will be in the jury's hands by Friday at the latest," says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern University Law School in L.A. Although the prosecution has submitted a list of 14 additional witnesses, observers predict most won't be called. "At this point, both sides have made their points and feel that less is more," Dr. Pugsley says.
The four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers are charged with violating Mr. King's civil rights when they arrested him on March 3, 1991. A conviction would require the agreement of all 12 jurors. The defendants face up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
The key issue of the trial's closing days is a videotape of Officer Theodore Briseno's testimony during last year's state trial in which he testified against his co-defendants. US District Judge John Davies ruled some of the Briseno tape admissible, then ordered the opposing lawyers to meet and thrash out which portions may be shown to jurors. Defense attorneys have asked the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals to block the showing of the tape.
"The whole arc of the defense argument has been to show that these officers were acting as they were trained and therefore what they did was not unreasonable," says Prof. Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School in L.A. "This tape challenges that assertion."
Beyond using the Briseno tape, prosecutors have not commented on their strategy. But several news reports claim that James Fyfe, a nationally known police-tactics expert and long-time critic of the LAPD, will appear at the trial. Mr. Fyfe is expected to counter the defense's main use-of-force expert, Sgt. Charles Duke Jr., who testified that every blow against King was "reasonable and necessary" to subdue him.
Most lawyers watching the trial said the defense lawyers made the right move by resting their case on Thursday. The trial had been moving their way for several days, experts say, as witnesses provided evidence that blame for King's beating might properly rest with the LAPD training that guided the officers.
The defense's momentum culminated with the testimony of Sgt. Stacey Koon, who supervised the arrest of King. Sergeant Koon told the court that he took full responsibility for every kick and baton blow during the arrest, hoping that his officers could "cripple" King and prevent him from standing. If King had been allowed to stand, Koon said, officers might have been forced to kill him.
"Stacey Koon makes or breaks this case," said Michael Stone, lawyer for Officer Laurence Powell. "If the jury believes Stacey Koon, we all walk. If the jury doesn't believe Stacey Koon, we're all in trouble."
Among the prosecution's most effective witnesses, experts say, was California Highway Patrol Officer Melanie Singer, who cried on the stand as she recounted the beating of King. Ms. Singer contradicted Koon's testimony, suggesting that the officers' actions were not by-the-book.
Until concluding arguments are given, experts watching this trial are reluctant to make predictions about the outcome. Most say that US attorneys have done a far better job in presenting their case than did state prosecutors in the 1992 trial.
Nevertheless, says Dan Caplis, a trial lawyer closely following the trial: "On the evidence presented to this point, I find it very difficult to imagine a guilty verdict for Koon, [Timothy] Wind, or Briseno. Powell is the one in most danger for now."