LA braced for re-run of Rodney King trial: The case that caused race riots last year is back to haunt the city, writes Phil Reeves from Los Angeles

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NINE MONTHS after the worst modern urban riots in the United States, Los Angeles is again bracing itself for further possible unrest as a court prepares to reopen the most volatile civil rights issue for decades: the police beating of Rodney King.

Jury selection begins today at a courthouse in the city centre, where the four white Los Angeles police officers who took part in the videotaped beating will be tried again, this time by a federal court.

When a mainly white jury in a state court failed to convict them in April, the City of Angels erupted into three days of rioting in which more than 50 people died, and hundreds of businesses were burned out, mainly in the black and Hispanic inner-city neighbourhoods around South-Central and the Korean sector.

This time the Los Angeles police force, heavily criticised for being hopelessly unprepared for the riots, has undertaken intensive training in case the officers are acquitted and trouble again erupts on the streets. The police commission has approved plans to spend an extra dollars 1bn (pounds 690m) on riot equipment, including rubber bullets and tear-gas.

Inner-city shopkeepers have drawn up elaborate plans to defend their premises, including putting guards on rooftops with semi-automatic weapons and barricading their stores. They face a city that is more heavily armed than ever - gun sales rose sharply after the riots.

Although millions of dollars have recently been spent on community relations, even some of the city's more moderate voices warn that Los Angeles remains a powder keg, which could easily be ignited by the case. An inquiry, headed by the former FBI director, William Webster, into the police's mishandling of the riots, concluded that Los Angeles was 'plagued by hostility, rage and resentment in many areas' against the police.

Tension has been stoked up further by the possibility that the hearing may overlap with the trial next month of three young blacks accused of severely assaulting a white truck driver - an attack that was broadcast world-wide on television at the start of the riots. Unlike the four officers, the defendants have been in jail on bonds of up to dollars 580,000, and face an array of charges - including attempted murder. For many in this ethnically mixed city, the two cases encapsulate a primary symptom of American racism - that the judiciary is biased in favour of whites.

Unlike the first trial, which a judge transferred to a predominantly white, conservative area outside the city, the federal case will be in downtown Los Angeles before a jury drawn from much of southern California. This time the officers are accused of violating Mr King's civil rights, and face up to 10 years in prison. But legal experts say the charge is hard to prove because the prosecution must show intent. Prosecutors are planning to call up to 40 witnesses - twice as many as last time - including Mr King.

Jury selection is likely to be a tortuous affair: it will be difficult to find jurors unprejudiced by the publicity given to the King beating, or undaunted by the fear that their verdict could lead to more death and mayhem. There is speculation that the jury may again be disproportionately white because blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be challenged, and excluded, over their attitudes to the authorities and their anger about the King beating.

For all the dire warnings of upheaval, there have been some significant changes since April. The Los Angeles Police Department has undergone a radical shake-up, ordered after a damning inquiry headed by Warren Christopher, now Secretary of State. Its highly provocative police chief, Daryl Gates, has left to become a radio host to be replaced with the more moderate Willie Williams, a black.

But rebuilding has been painfully slow, and many grievances remain. Los Angeles police officers were involved in a record number of shootings last year (77 - although the riots meant the figure was higher than usual). And the authorities are so desperate about the gang homicide rate that they plan to deter young gangsters by taking them to a mortuary, to show them autopsies on shooting victims.