King trial opens with new claims

THE FEDERAL trial of four Los Angeles policemen in the highly volatile Rodney King civil rights case got under way yesterday, 10 months after the city was ravaged by riots when the officers walked free from a California court.

The hearing, before a packed courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, began with a new and unexpected claim about what happened on the night that Mr King, who is black, was videotaped repeatedly being baton-whipped and kicked by three white officers while their sergeant looked on.

In an opening statement, the prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Steven Clymer, said that after the beating two of the officers took a two-hour detour while transporting Mr King from one hospital to another - to show off their victim to colleagues at their police station.

The officers, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell - whose lawyers deny the claim - were also accused of trying to persuade hospital staff that Mr King was under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug PCP, although this was not the case.

Much of the prosecution's opening statement was identical to the case last year when the officers where acquitted on all but one assault charge by a state court in Simi Valley, a predominantly white, conservative area north of Los Angeles. When the officers were not convicted, the city erupted into three days of riots, in which 52 people died.

However, yesterday there was a shift in prosecution strategy. In his opening statement, Mr Clymer immediately conceded that Mr King was a convicted felon who had been drink-driving and speeding; who resisted being handcuffed, and who attempted to run away because of fear of returning to jail.

This time the case centres on whether the officers violated Mr King's civil rights by beating him, and falsifying police reports. The prosecution are planning to produce new evidence, which includes findings from military doctors who concluded that Mr King was struck at least five times on the head with a 'baton or similar instrument'.

Despite an 81-second videotape showing the beating, it has never been proved beyond doubt that he was struck on the head - a blow which specifically contravenes the Los Angeles Police Department's use-of-force policy.

The hearing comes at a time when emotions are running high over how far police should be allowed to go to contain crime in a city which is armed to the teeth, and plagued by gang violence.