LA awaits King trial verdict: Troops and police ready for trouble while gun shops do a roaring trade

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The Independent Online
THE SECOND trial of four Los Angeles policemen in the Rodney King beating was yesterday drawing to a close, with thousands of police and troops poised to move into position across the city in case of a repeat of last year's riots.

The officers' lawyers were last night presenting closing arguments in the case, which is likely to go to the jury this weekend. The eight men and four women chosen to determine the outcome of the United States' most sensitive civil rights issue for decades are expected to deliberate for several days, including Easter Sunday.

Speculation about the outcome has reached fever pitch in Los Angeles, which has painful memories of devastating riots after the officers walked free from a state court last April. This week there have been hour-long queues at gun shops, which have been running out of ammunition.

As the city whips itself into a lather of fear, its politicians - who were hopelessly unprepared for last year's riots - were falling over one another to demonstrate that they are ready for the worst. If anything, the scale of their preparations is serving to increase tensions in a metropolis which, though volatile, is more stable than it was last year.

An emergency operations centre has been set up by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department which has pledged to deploy 1,000 officers as soon as deliberations begin - a force which will swell the number of police on the streets to more than 8,000.

The governor of California, Pete Wilson, has 5,000 National Guard troops on stand-by, supported by armoured personnel carriers. The arsenal of security apparatus is breathtaking - plastic bullets, gas, helicopters, guns.

As they summarised their cases, after weeks of evidence, both sides presented sharply differing portraits of the four officers. To the prosecution, they were hoodlums administering street justice to a disrespectful Mr King, who then lied in police reports. 'Is this reasonable?' asked the lead prosecutor, Steven Clymer, as he showed the videotaped beating. 'Is this the way you want police to treat citizens in this country?' To the defence, they were the sacrificial lambs, offered up by an administration keen to offload blame for America's urban unrest.

Last year's state trial was before a jury without blacks in a conservative suburb 30 miles north-west of Los Angeles. By contrast, the officers' second trial is in a federal court in downtown Los Angeles before a jury which includes two blacks. Jurors will be keenly aware that their decision is being seen as a historic test of the US judicial system's treatment of blacks and that - if the officers are acquitted - it could lead to further unrest.

This is a potential advantage to the federal prosecutors, who are hoping that conviction of the officers will close one the ugliest episodes in US race relations. But this time, the charges do not simply involve the easily understood question of assault, but are complex and hard to prove.

Officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind, are accused of violating Rodney King's constitutional right to be free from the use of unreasonable force during an arrest. Their on-scene supervisor, Sgt Stacey Koon, is accused of violating Mr King's right, under the fourteenth Amendment, not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law. But, to convict, the jury must believe that the officers acted wilfully, and knew that they were doing wrong.

Their decision must be unanimous; one dissenting juror could produce a mistrial.