Rodney King police brutality case and the 1991 Los Angeles riots

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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 that Rodney King 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 defendants.

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 Angeles County.

(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 prison.)

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 convicted.

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 out.

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 him.

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 University.

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 said."

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.

Copyright © 2000, 2008 crimsonbird.com
Written by Mike Lepore, June 7, 2000 for crimsonbird.com Nonfiction Book Reviews.

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