Florida fears racial unrest as policeman's retrial opens: The shooting of a black motorcyclist has echoes of the Rodney King case

  • @dusborne
THE LONG-DELAYED retrial of a Miami police officer, William Lozano, accused of killing two young black men in 1989, finally opened yesterday, amid fears across Florida that a not-guilty verdict could trigger unrest both in Miami, where the killings occurred, and in Orlando, the reluctant host to the trial.

The case has strong echoes of the Rodney King trial which led to last year's street rioting in Los Angeles.

Miami was engulfed in three days of rioting after the incident itself in January 1989, when Mr Lozano, 33, shot and killed a black motorcyclist who was fleeing from another police officer in a mostly black area of the city. His passenger also died in the ensuing crash.

Though Mr Lozano, an Hispanic American, was originally convicted on two counts of manslaughter, an appeals court overturned the verdict on the grounds that the jury in the case may have been influenced by a concern to avoid triggering fresh riots.

It is an especially sensitive case for Florida because it touches not only the grievances felt by the black community, but also on long-standing tensions between blacks and Hispanics. In Miami, Hispanics account for 50 per cent of the population, whites for 30 per cent and blacks 20 per cent.

During months of argument over the best means of ensuring fairness for Mr Lozano, the location of the retrial was altered no fewer than eight different times by the courts, with Miami, Tallahassee - the State capital - and Orlando as the three possibilities.

The city of Orlando, an overwhelmingly white bastion of conservatism - and a favourite holiday destination for thousands of Britons - has let it be known that it is far from delighted finally to have won the honour of staging the new trial.

The six-member jury, picked last week, is made up of three whites, two Hispanics and one black. Arguments in the case may take several weeks.

Mr Lozano, whose lawyer, Roy Black, defended William K. Smith in the celebrated Florida rape trial in 1991, still believes that last year's Los Angeles riots have eliminated the chances of a fair trial. 'Anybody in the jury will be thinking that if they absolve me, there will be burning and disturbances and millions of dollars lost,' he has said.

Black leaders in Miami have been deeply critical of the decision to move the trial to Orlando, which they have branded the 'Simi Valley of Florida' - a reference to the southern California suburb where a jury acquitted the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King.

While there was a strong leaning towards keeping the trial out of Miami, because of the local racial volatility, critics suggest that in the end it is only the make-up of the jury that matters - particularly since the proceedings are to be carried in their entirety live on television.