Justice on trial as city seethes

ON THE DAY Rodney King entered the witness box in the world's best-known case about police brutality, something happened which seemed unpleasantly familiar for the citizens of Los Angeles. It involved Mr King's erstwhile barber.

It was alleged that the barber's car nearly ran over a policeman, clipping and injuring his legs. There was a car chase, joined by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. This ended when the barber, Michael James Bryant, who was black, jumped out of his car and stumbled into a swimming-pool.

Unable to persuade him to get out, an LAPD officer reportedly used a stun gun. After a high- voltage blast, the man duly obeyed. A few minutes later he died. An autopsy failed to prove cause of death. The front of his barbershop, not far from Mr King's childhood home in Los Angeles, was soon covered by bouquets of flowers from grieving, angry, friends. Mr Bryant, a loved and respected community figure, was 37.

His death comes when Americans, facing high levels of inner- city crime, are profoundly divided over acceptable boundaries of police conduct. In less than a month, four police officers in the LA region have been shot, three fatally. Both the police and the community feel aggrieved, under siege even. The Los Angeles Times warned on Friday that theirs is 'a city on the edge'.

It was in this troubled atmosphere that Rodney King last week entered a federal court to tell his story publicly, under oath, for the first time. The city has awaited his account for two years, ever since he was videotaped being baton-whipped by white Los Angeles policemen, while more than two dozen other police officers looked on.

Would he crack under cross- examination, benefiting the case of four officers now accused by the federal authorities of violating his civil rights? Or would he again emerge as the gentle figure who touchingly appealed for peace after the Los Angeles riots, with the halting words: 'Can we all get along?'

It was the latter. Soft-spoken and calm, he said that on the night of his beating he led police on a high-speed car chase because he feared being returned to prison. He was out on parole for robbery. Mr King, 27, admitted lying to his parole officer by denying drink-driving and using marijuana. He was unable to remember details, sometimes contradicting himself. He recalled one officer saying: 'We're going to kill you, nigger. Run]' But later wasn't sure whether he heard the word 'nigger'.

The anonymous figure being pummelled in a grainy videotape was transformed into a gentle young man in a smart suit. Rodney King was, as America's army of television legal experts tellingly observed, 'humanised'. 'I was just trying to stay alive, sir, trying to stay alive,' he told the court.

His performance has fed the growing consensus that the federal prosecutors, expected to close their case next week, have put on a stronger case than their counterparts in the officers' first trial last April. Mr King did not testify then, and the acquittals on almost every count triggered the explosion in Los Angeles.

This time prosecutors have introduced several new elements into a case which many see as a trial of the criminal justice system. These include an unexpected claim that officers took a badly beaten Mr King to a police station to show him off before driving him to hospital.

To the untrained eye this may seem unnecessary as the videotape of the beating seems unarguably incriminating. Outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles last week, there were protesters, one carrying a banner saying 'I Saw What I Saw'. Another had the legend: 'A picture is worth 1,000 words? Not when it's black and white.'

But, as the first trial showed, juries are impossible to second- guess. The prosecution has the difficult task of convincing all 12 jurors that the officers intended to deprive Mr King of his constitutional rights, including freedom from unreasonable arrest. It is not for nothing that Los Angeles's new police chief, Willie Williams, has declared there will be thousands of riot-trained policemen on the streets on the day of the verdict.