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LA awakes from its nightmare: Gangs' guns fall silent in wake of verdict in Rodney King trial

LOS ANGELES, where the dividing line between fiction and reality has always been hazy, was yesterday pinching itself hard after awakening from the long nightmare of the Rodney King beating trial to behold streets that were far more peaceful than normal.

The effect of the trial verdicts, and hundreds of extra police on the streets, was to silence the guns of scores of gangs which nightly terrorise the city and to produce an unfamiliar and welcome calm in a metropolis in which a handful of people are usually shot dead every day. According to one officer, the weekend was one of the quietest for a 'very, very long time'.

This was not only due to a broad- based satisfaction that two of the police officers in the King beating, Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell, were found guilty of civil rights violations by a federal court on Saturday. (The other two, Officer Theodore Briseno and Officer Timothy Wind, were acquitted). It was also sheer relief - the end of several months of heightened tension and hyped-up fears of riots which seemed to be driving the city towards a nervous collapse.

As city officials congratulated themselves on averting a repetition of last year's riots, which erupted after a state court acquitted the officers of almost all assault charges, attention began to focus on the eight men and four women jurors in a federal court who are widely considered to have put matters to rights. Their names have not been revealed.

A male juror appeared on television, with his face in shadow, to explain that their decision was largely based on videotape of Mr King being baton-whipped and kicked as he writhed on the ground.

Although the panel must have been acutely aware of the risk of violence if they acquitted the four men, he insisted that it was never discussed. 'I think the tape basically speaks for itself - that's basically what convicted them,' the juror said. Of the two convicted officers, he commented: 'I think a few years in jail would do them both good.'

The decision over whether this or another fate will befall the two officers will not be known until 4 August, when they appear in court for sentencing. They face up to 10 years in prison and fines of a maximum dollars 250,000 ( pounds 163,000). Both men are likely to appeal.

The progress of their cases will be closely watched, as will the forthcoming trial of three black youths who were filmed beating a white lorry driver at the start of last year's riots.

But it is clear that Los Angeles is now trying hard to consign the King affair to history and instead to turn its attention to its pressing contemporary problems - including a recession, a collapsing education system and the need to continue rebuilding the riot-affected areas.

Some businesses have not yet reopened in the riot zones, because of a fear of further trouble.

A crucial aspect of what is being billed as the rebirth of the city is the selection of a mayor to replace Tom Bradley, who is retiring after five terms.

Tomorrow, electors will choose between 24 candidates in a primary election which has been largely ignored because of the King case.

The betting is that two dramatically different candidates will emerge for a run-off - Michael Woo, a liberally-inclined Chinese-American who has a broad base of support across the city's ethnic groups, and Richard Riordan, a multi-millionaire Republican who has strong backing from the city's better-off whites. As Los Angeles is Democratic, Mr Woo is tentatively tipped to win.