LA police trial blighted by jury selection row

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A FURTHER blow has been dealt to the already very remote possibility of finding an unbiased jury to settle the Rodney King affair, one of the most divisive civil rights issues to face the United States for years.

It was delivered by Laurence Powell, one of the four police officers involved in the King beating, who appeared on television on the eve of jury selection with a thinly disguised, and inflammatory, appeal to potential jurors.

Mr Powell, the policeman accused of administering most of the 56 kicks and baton-blows which Mr King received, reminded viewers that the officers had been dealing with a convicted felon who was on parole but 'deserved to be back in prison'. Then, Mr Powell explained how they had known Mr King was a parolee by his size, his clothing and the way he was 'puffed up'.

This appeal would have been banned as highly prejudicial by the British courts, but in the free-speaking US it is another tactic in a dirty publicity war over the new trial, this time being held in a federal court. The officers' acquittal on all but one assault charge (against Mr Powell) by a Californian court last April ignited an explosion of rage in Los Angeles, with three days of rioting and 52 deaths. The officers have since argued that the videotaped beating, broadcast endlessly in the US, was a legitimate attempt to suppress a violent criminal resisting arrest.

Yesterday around 350 potential jurors gathered at a courthouse in Los Angeles for the first day of selection. Both the prosecution and the defence face a dilemma: the officers' lawyers fear that it will be impossible to find jurors who are undaunted by the prospect that another acquittal could unleash more violence in Los Angeles, where tensions remain high.

The prosecutors know that they must secure a unanimous verdict to win - no easy task, given the large number of middle-class whites who believe that the police should be allowed as much leeway as possible in their fight to contain crime in a society plagued by gangs and guns. The same category of people frequentlETHER write errory argue that it is fundamentally unfair, un-American even, to try the officers twice (the first case comprised assault charges brought by the state; the second, brought by the US Justice Department, alleges civil rights violations).

Some lawyers predicted that the jury being chosen yesterday would inevitably be white-dominated, as other ethnic groups are likely to express attitudes which would lead to their exclusion. If a juror shows during questioning that he or she is unable to try the officers fairly, the defence can challenge the selection of that person.

Judge John Davies, who has expressed the hope that there will not be a second outbreak of civil unrest because of the trial, yesterday supervised the handing out of lengthy questionnaires to the prospective jurors.

'The government would like an all- black jury and defence would like an all-white jury,' said Stephen Yagman, a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer, 'but none of this is going to make any difference at all, because there won't be a conviction. It will be impossible to find 12 jurors who believe that it's perfectly all right to try these cops again.'

If a mainly white jury is empanelled and the officers are again acquitted, the Rodney King affair will be seen by many blacks as final proof that the US judicial system is fundamentally unjust.

Book Review, page 23

(Photograph omitted)