On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was the driver of a car
in Los Angeles, California, and Bryant Allen was a passenger in
the back seat. The driver didn't stop when signaled by a police
car behind him, but increased his speed. One estimate said that
King drove at 100 miles per hour for 7.8 miles.
When police finally stopped the car, they delivered
56 baton blows and six kicks to King, in a period of two minutes,
producing 11 skull fractures, brain damage, and kidney damage.
A man named George Holliday, standing on the balcony
of a nearby building, videotaped the incident. The next day
(March 4), he gave his 81-second tape to Los Angeles TV channel 5.
By the end of the day, the video was being broadcast by
TV stations worldwide.
Unaware that the incident had been videotaped, the
police officers filed inaccurate reports, not mentioning the fact
was left with head wounds.
On March 15, 1991, four police officers were
arraigned on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and use of
excessive force. The four police officers who were charged were Sgt.
Stacey C. Koon, Ofc. Laurence M. Powell (Larry Powell), Ofc.
Theodore Briseno, and Ofc. Timothy Wind. On March 26, they
pleaded not guilty.
On a defense motion, the trial of the police officers
was relocated from Los Angeles to the suburb of Simi Valley, in
Ventura County, despite objections by the prosecution that the two
communities have "different demographics." The jury was
selected from a neighborhood in which many people have friends or
family members who are police officers, but the likelihood of
pro-police bias was not viewed by the court as a form of prejudice
to justify dismissing prospective jurors.
Almost a year passed between indictment and the start
of the trial. Testimony began March 5, 1992.
On April 29, the jury acquitted the four
Summary : Four white police officers had been
acquitted by a white jury selected from the suburbs of assaulting
a black man in the city.
Thousands of people in South Central Los Angeles
responded to the verdict with several days of rioting. The
violence spread to other parts of Los Angeles County. Federal
troops and the California National Guard were mobilized to quell
the riots. In six days of rioting, 54 people were killed, 2,383
were known to have been injured, and 13,212 people were arrested.
There was an estimated $700 million in property damage in Los
(The figures above are from the book
Fires and Furies : The L.A. Riots -- What Really Happened , by
James D. Delk (1985). Link for information about buying the book.)
The first person to be arrested in Los Angeles (on
April 30, the second night of rioting) was Donald Coleman, accused
of throwing a molotov cocktail into a 7-Eleven store. (He was
convicted later in 1992, and sentenced to 19 years and 8 months in
The rioting spread to a lesser extent to several
other cities. 300 people were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia.
On May 2, the U.S. Justice Department announced that
a federal grand jury had been empaneled to investigate civil
rights violations by the four police officers.
Reuters news bulletin : "June 26, 1992 -
Amnesty International accuses Los Angeles police of widespread use
of excessive force, sometimes amounting to torture."
The officers were arraigned on federal charges on
August 5, 1992. On April 17, two of the four defendants were
TESTIMONY DURING THE FIRST TRIAL
Koon was the officer in the role of supervisor of the
other officers. Powell was the officer who hit King most of the
time. Attorney Darryl Mounger defended Koon, and attorney Michael
Stone defended Powell. In the first trial, the lawyers for the
prosecution were Terry White and Alan Yochelson.
On the witness stand, Koon and Powell explained that
they beat Rodney King because he failed to follow instructions.
Specifically, although King did lie face-down on the ground, as
the officers instructed him to, he ignored their orders to keep
his arms straight out to the sides. He had his elbows bent, with
his hands closer to his shoulders. Police described this as "a
push-up position" and interpreted it as an indication that King
was preparing to try to get up off the ground. Therefore, Koon
and Powell insisted, they were not permitted by the rule book to
handcuff King at that time; they were required by regulations to
continue to beat King with their batons, and shock him with the
taser, until such time as his arms would be straight, and only
then, handcuff him.
The number of police on the scene when Rodney King
was beaten included 21 officers from the Los Angeles Police
Department (LAPD) and 4 officers from the California Highway
Patrol. With 25 officers present, it would have been feasible to
handcuff King at any time. Nevertheless, Koon and Powell
testified, formal police procedures forbade them to handcuff the
suspect until he complied with their orders to straighten his arm
On the witness stand, Koon said Rodney King was
"an aggressive, combative suspect." In an allusion to
the huge comic book character, the Hulk, Koon called King a
"monster" with "Hulk-like strength." Koon said
his actions were based in part on his assumption that King was
"probably an ex-con" and "probably on PCP."
(PCP is the psychoactive drug phencyclidine.)
Koon said King did not respond to the first
application of the taser, a police weapon which delivers painful
electric shocks. A second application of the taser, Koon said,
caused King to "groan like a wild animal."
Briseno testified that King was lying on the ground,
and not trying to get up, when the other officers continued to
beat and kick him. When asked under oath whether King "never
tried to get up," Briseno replied, "That's
correct." Briseno was asked why he can be seen pushing Powell
away from King, at a particular point in the video. Briseno
explained : "I didn't see Mr. King moving, and I thought
Officer Powell was out of control." He elaborated, "I
just couldn't understand why they were continuing what I saw there
was no reason for."
Police officer Melanie Singer of the California
Highway Patrol had driven the patrol car that chased King's car.
She was the first officer to instruct King to move away from the
vehicle and to assume a prone position on the ground. However,
the other officers then took over. Later in court, Singer
testified that King at first danced around jokingly, wiggling his
buttocks, but eventually followed police instructions to lie
face-down on the ground. She described in vivid terms how the
baton blows "split open King's face" and "blood
poured out," while King "screamed." She said the
other officers used the baton with "power strokes" (motions
similar the swinging of a baseball bat.) She testified that it was
her opinion that excessive police force was used.
Bryant Allen, the back seat passenger in King's car,
testified that he and King had each purchased and consumed one
liter bottle of beer before King offered to give Allen a ride. He
said that, after he heard the police sirens behind them, he said,
"Rodney, you better pull over. It's the police," but
King didn't reply or show any other indication of having heard
The maker of the video tape, George Holliday,
testified that on March 3, 1991, at approximately 12 : 45 AM, he
was awakened by the sounds of police sirens and a helicopter. He
removed his video camera from a tripod and then took the camera
with him to his balcony. He made the recording of the incident,
and later gave the tape to TV channel 5.
THE SECOND TRIAL AND THE CONCLUSION
On August 4, 1992, the four officers were indicted by
a federal grand jury. In the second trial, the officers were
accused of violating the civil rights of Rodney King.
September 12, 1992 -- Racists and anti-racists faced
off at demonstration at the court house in Simi Valley,
California. Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups had travelled from
Mississippi and other states. They were faced by
counter-demonstrators, who included civil rights activists, labor,
greens, feminists and socialists.
October, 1992 -- Stacey Koon told his side of the
story in his book, Presumed Guilty : The Tragedy of the
Rodney King Affair (The book is now out of print).
February 3, 1993 -- Jury selection began in the
second trial of the four police officers. Opening statements
began February 25.
Koon was the only one of the four defendants to take
the stand in the second trial.
On March 9, 1993, Rodney King, who never testified
during the first trial, took the witness stand (King's legal
counsel was Milton Grimes.) King admitted that, on March 3, 1991,
he had been driving after drinking a bottle of beer.
On April 10 the jury began deliberating.
April 17 -- the day of the verdict. Koon and Powell
were found guilty; Briseno and Wind were acquitted.
6,500 police officers had been mobilized in Los
Angeles, and police snipers were placed on rooftops, in
preparation for another riot. A riot did not occur.
Acquitted : Officer Theodore Briseno, 40, married
with two children, had been with the LAPD for 11 years.
Acquitted : Officer Timothy Wind, 32, married with
one child, had been with the LAPD since 1990, and had been a
military police officer from 1983 to 1989.
Convicted : Sergeant Stacey Koon, 42, married with
five children, had been a member of the police department for 16
years. He has a master's degrees in criminal justice from
California State University and a master's degree in public
administration from the University of Southern California.
Convicted : Officer Laurence Powell, 30, single, had
been a full-time police office since 1987, after two years as a
reserve officer. He is a graduate of California State
Reuters news, April 17, 1993 - "Harland Braun,
Briseno's attorney, told reporters his client wept after the
verdict. 'Now he's just going to go home and cry,' Braun
Reuters news, April 17 - "Community leader
Danny Bakewell, of the Brotherhood Crusade, called the verdict
'absolutely fantastic, wonderful.' -- 'This was payback for a lot
of people who have been beaten on the streets when there was no
camera present,' he said."
Reuters, April 17 - "'I have to
believe the jurors were pressured into finding a guilty verdict
with the specter of riot violence looming in the background,' said
Phil Caruso, head of the Police Benevolent Association, New York
City's police union."
Reuters, April 19 - "Koon, who gave
an exclusive interview to the syndicated tabloid television show,
'A Current Affair,' to be aired on Monday night, said in excerpts
broadcast in advance that he felt no animosity over the trial or
the verdicts. 'I'm not here to bad-mouth the system. I'm not
here to bad-mouth the jurors' ... 'The jurors in this particular
case were under a tremendous amount of pressure,' he added. 'This
was a very high-profile case.'"
Reuters, April 19 - "Two jurors,
interviewed on ABC and NBC morning talk shows, said the potential
for riots did not influence them. 'Absolutely not. It did not,'
said one anonymous juror on ABC's Good Morning America programme.
A second unnamed juror, interviewed on NBC's Today Show, agreed.
Both said they were influenced far more by the videotape of the
beating, which was taken by an amateur photographer and showed
officers raining more than 50 baton blows on King, as well as
kicking and stomping him."
Reuters, April 19 - "A USA
Today/CNN/Gallup poll found the majority of blacks surveyed, 55
per cent, thought two convictions were not enough, while only 21
per cent of whites felt the same."
In July, 1993, a black man named Damian Williams was
tried for beating a white man named Reginald Denny during the Los
Angeles riot on April 29, 1992. The judge sentenced Damian
Williams to the maximum allowed by law, 10 years in prison.
Koon and Powell were sent to the Federal Prison Camp
at Dublin, California. The prison is one often used to house
so-called white-collar criminals (e.g., Wall Street tycoon Michael
Milken spent two years there). The prison is nicknamed "Club
Fed" because it is "a prison without walls, fences,
bars, gun towers or guns", and escapees are called
"walkaways." Prisoners eat in a dining room with a salad
bar, and are provided recreational facilities, including video
rentals, gardening, a asphalt jogging track, a sand volleyball
court, and a weightlifting room. (From the Los Angeles Times,
October 13, 1993) Controversy was raised when this facility was
compared to California's other prisons, which have "death
fences" designed to electrocute escapees. (Los Angeles
Times, October 27, 1993).
When Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell were released,
they began new careers unrelated to law enforcement.