King trial jurors confront guilty policeman on TV

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The Independent Online
THE American media have long ignored the difference between notoriety and fame. Simply to be well-known is enough to guarantee a paid-up place in the limelight. Witness the highly successful public speaking career of Gordon Liddy, the Watergate burglar. Or Daryl Gates, the disgraced ex-chief of Los Angeles police, who now works as a local radio host.

But this week Donahue, the popular talk show, notched up a grubby new first in television. It not only paid Stacey Koon, one of the two Los Angeles policemen found guilty in the Rodney King trial, dollars 25,000 ( pounds 16,000) to appear; it also lured two of the jurors who convicted him to argue the case with Koon, for dollars 5,000 a piece.

This was not the first windfall for ex-Sgt Koon, who faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to dollars 250,000 when he is sentenced in August. He has already received dollars 15,000 for appearing on A Current Affair, a tabloid television show, in addition to the proceeds from his book about the King affair, Presumed Guilty.

The producers of Phil Donahue's show will have had few regrets about the damage they inflicted on the tattered majesty of the law, for it was a compelling spectacle. In one corner, the bulldog veteran sergeant insisted that he had done only what all the politicians wanted: he had subdued a dangerous villain using the only technique available under police department guidelines. And in the other, the jurors were not about to change their minds either.

Only their first names were used, but no effort was made to disguise them. 'Fred', a burly 35-year-old jeweller with long hair and a beard, appeared in tennis shoes, jeans and a black vest bearing the logo 'Bad Boys Club'. 'Marie', one of two blacks on the jury and a single mother, works for the US postal service. After hearing Koon trot out his defence yet again, she declared: 'I would never change my verdict. I do feel he was guilty.' Fred told him he should learn to admit when he was wrong; that way he would be able to cope with it.

Cynical exploitation of a crime it may have been, but it added some important details to the King story. For instance: the officers who beat Mr King could easily have walked free after their federal trial last month, as they did a year ago after a state trial that ignited the worst riots in recent US history. Marie revealed that the jury had very nearly produced a hung verdict that would have led to a mistrial. Five members at first had not wanted to convict Koon, and there had been 'a lot of crying, a lot of fighting, a lot of emotion' before two of the four officers were found guilty of violating Mr King's civil rights.

Koon said he thought his case would be appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds that he had been tried for the same offence twice. Astonishingly, Fred appeared to agree. As the credits rolled, he volunteered the view that the second trial set a bad precedent. 'Although it wasn't for the same crimes, it was for the same incident. If they want to try this man for all these crimes, they should have done it in the first place.'

Fred was wheeled off to be questioned by a news crew, and millions of viewers later watched him watching himself on Donahue watching Koon watching the videotape of Rodney King being beaten. Little wonder so many Americans appear to find it hard to distinguish reality from fiction.