A voice cries mercy

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Reginald Denny is a hero of our times. When he was pulled from his lorry in last year's Los Angeles riots and beaten by a black mob, his injuries were so terrible it is amazing he survived. When two of his attackers were found not guilty of attempted murder this week, there was a yelp of white rage. But not from Denny. He wanted them to have a second chance. Phil Reeves reports

Reginald Denny's own memory of what happened on the evening of 29 April 1992 is fragmented. He says he remembers seeing an unusual number of abandoned cars as he drove through south-central Los Angeles, and realising that something was amiss. He recalls seeing a lorry in front of him being looted. And he remembers the heart-stopping terror when his right window was smashed by a crowbar. After that, nothing. His next memory is waking up six days later in a hospital bed, after his head had been pieced together like fragments from a shattered egg.

When Denny eventually saw the television pictures of his beating, it was with the same degree of amazement as the millions of others who witnessed it on live television. He found it hard to believe that he was that bloodied blond-haired man crawling on the tarmac, or the helpless figure around whom a black youth - Damian Williams - danced jubilantly after smashing his head with a brick, like a coconut at a fun fair.

His reaction to this videotaped nightmare was one of a strange detachment. 'It was like watching somebody else,' he said. 'There was no anger.' He showed the same kind of removed response when he first saw his attackers. They didn't look like bad people, he reflected; in fact, they were just the sort of guys he liked to 'hang with'.

It was in the early evening and Mr Denny, a dollars 16.70-an-hour driver, was taking a load of gravel to a cement mixing plant in Inglewood, south-west Los Angeles, when he drove into one of those endless, drab stretches of cityscape, south of the cluster of skyscrapers that comprise downtown Los Angeles, and further still from the manicured lawns and palm-lined boulevards of Beverly Hills.

He had chosen to take his 18-wheeler rig through south-central LA as a short cut to avoid the city's congested freeways and, by way of entertainment, he was listening to a Christian radio station. So he had no clue of the fury that was uncoiling within the fast food joints, liquor stores, street front churches or neat detached wooden homes that he was trundling past.

He did not know that, some two hours earlier, four white Los Angeles officers had walked free after a white jury had repeatedly watched a videotape of the violent beating of Rodney King, and concluded that they had committed no assault. Nor did the 36-year-old trucker have any inkling, as he drove into the turf of the Eight Trey Crips, one of the city's nastiest gangs, that a crowd of angry blacks was administering revenge for what they perceived to be a grotesquely unfair legal system with random attacks on whites, Latinos and Asians in the road ahead.

There is no doubt that if television news helicopters, which daily scour Los Angeles for shootings, pile-ups and jammed freeways, had not been overhead at the junction of Normandie and Florence avenues, what happened to Reginald Denny would have commanded no more public attention than the many hundreds of forgotten people who were injured during the LA riots, or the 53 who died. But they were there.

Although his beating had been witnessed by millions, more than 20 minutes elapsed before anyone came to his aid. The Los Angeles police, who were thrown into paralysing chaos the moment the riots erupted, had fled the scene before his beating, fearful for their safety. It was four black people who rescued the trucker, at least two of whom felt compelled to rush to the scene by the sickening television pictures.

When they arrived a half-dead Denny, who was also beaten with a claw hammer and pelted with bottles, had crawled back into his lorry and was making a pathetic attempt to drive away, despite his caved-in skull. His rescuers reached him just in time. When they delivered Denny to the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital 15 minutes later, he had gone into severe convulsions and was spitting up blood. 'Just one more minute and he would have been dead,' a paramedic told them. He was rushed off for an emergency operation to remove a large, expanding blood clot on his brain.

Eighteen months after the attack, Reginald Denny is progressing well. Although medication has caused a sharp weight increase, he is remarkably fit given the extent of his injuries. The surgeons who put him back together again compared his condition to the victim of a car crash at about 55 to 65 miles per hour, without a seat belt.

His skull was broken into almost 100 pieces, and some of his sinus bones are still broken. Even now, the only thing stopping one of his eyes from falling into his cheek is a plastic plate. He also carries a permanent outward reminder of what happened. His eight-year-old daughter, Ashley, has nicknamed him 'Reginald Denty' because he has a deep indentation in the right sides of his temples.

His life has changed utterly since he ceased being a plain-living, if rather withdrawn, lorry driver and became an unwilling celebrity, whose battered face is known to almost every American. Unable to return to trucking, he is supported by a combination of insurance payments and donations from his large number of admirers. These days Denny, who is divorced, spends much of his time with his new girlfriend, whom he met behind the counter of a convenience store, or pursuing his favourite hobby: fishing.

Since his release from hospital, more than a month after the attack, he has made regular television appearances, travelling from studio to studio by limousine to appeal for peace. The limo could be a foretaste of things to come. His Rolls-Royce-driving lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, a black civil rights attorney who has extracted some dollars 35m from local authorities for sundry abuses, has filed a multi-million dollar damages lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles for failing to protect him properly during the unrest.

But no one in the City of Angels suspects Denny of trying to profit from his misfortune. The sincerity of his generosity towards his two attackers has quelled any such mutterings. It cannot have been easy to listen to a jury returning acquittal after acquittal against the men who nearly took his life. And yet on Monday, only hours after the first wave of verdicts, Denny appeared on television appealing for clemency. Henry 'Kiki' Watson - whose boot pinned Denny to the ground while his pockets were picked - should be freed straight away, he argued. After 18 months in custody, he had surely learnt his lesson. All he has ever asked for is for his assailants to have a second chance in life, and to show some remorse. Whether his latter requirement has been fulfilled is a moot point.

It is this extraordinarily forgiving attitude that has made Denny into one of the few heroes of a tragedy that has more than its fair share of villains. When this week's verdicts were announced, US talk-show hosts were under siege from angry callers from the suburbs, including many embittered whites who accused the jury of being politically motivated or intimidated by fear of reprisals. For hours, the airwaves were thick with abuse.

Michael Jackson, a popular LA radio host of British extraction, was apoplectic with rage, calling Denny's attackers 'bad bastards' and 'filthy criminals' who belonged behind bars. One caller demanded sarcastically why Denny himself hadn't be prosecuted 'for allowing his head to impede the flight of a brick'. But Denny's position has been consistent throughout. 'I have been given a chance, and so I am gonna extend that courtesy to some other guys who were obviously a little bit confused,' he said this week. 'Let's get on with life.' He is a desperately needed peacemaker in a balkanised society. But the question remains: was anyone listening?

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