Lawyers grab spotlight in King case: A battle for media exposure has been joined by those defending four policemen accused of beating a black motorist. Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles

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The Independent Online
IT IS 5.15pm outside the fortress- like federal court building in central Los Angeles and proceedings have ended for the day. Lawyers are lining up to talk into a cluster of microphones, an electronic bouquet from the world's media who are gathered there to discover whether the policemen who beat Rodney King will ever be punished.

Harland Braun, the attorney for one of the officers, is in good form. His explains that his client, Theodore Briseno, whom prosecutors accuse of 'stomping' on Mr King, was wearing surprisingly lightweight boots on the night of the incident. In fact, they were like ballet slippers, hardly capable of inflicting injury.

When Mr Braun is finished, another attorney slides into the spotlight. It is Michael Stone, lawyer for Laurence Powell, the officer who was filmed repeatedly baton- whipping Mr King. Mr Stone, himself a former policeman, delivers a disparaging view of the prosecution's case, and reminds the world of his client's alleged innocence. The cameras click and whir; three dozen pens fly across the pages of crumpled notebooks. In the desire to snatch a quote, no one asks him anything taxing.

Such are the scenes during the opening days of the second trial of the white Los Angeles police officers who beat Mr King, a black motorist, but who were acquitted last year, triggering the worst urban riots in the United States for decades. During breaks in the hearing, the officers' lawyers (with one exception) head for the press corps to deliver their interim view of the contest, in the hope of edging ahead in the publicity war.

Mr Stone declared the proceedings 'a draw' so far. On the same day, one of the defendants, Stacey Koon, put in an appearance to rubbish prosecution claims that two of his accused colleagues showed off an injured Mr King to fellow officers, instead of taking him to hospital.

The lawyers' rolling analysis should not influence the jury - members of which are denied access to media accounts of the trial - but it does significantly manipulate public perception of proceedings. The officers' first trial, by a state court last year, was televised in full, allowing a large audience to make up their minds about the racially sensitive case.

But cameras and microphones are banned from the federal hearing, so Californians are dependent on short news bulletins in which - given the lack of any moving pictures from the courtroom - the defence attorneys know they are likely to figure. The perceived bias in favour of the police is exacerbated by the US prosecutors' policy of refusing to comment.

None of this helps ease emotions in a racially divided city which is still seething after last year's riots, and is split between those who see the officers' second trial on civil rights charges as unfair - a case of 'double jeopardy' resulting from a political pre- election manoeuvre by George Bush, who ordered a federal investigation after the Los Angeles riots - and those who want to see the four policemen behind bars as soon as possible.

Oddly, the officers' lawyers are using television to debunk the very medium on which they now appear on a daily basis. A central part of their argument is to challenge the famous videotape of the King beating - a strategy which might seem far-fetched, given the film's apparently incriminating nature, but which is calculated and shrewd. They have not forgotten that the trial is in Los Angeles, an entertainment city which is familiar with the concept that the camera can be - and often is - misleading, even when the film in question is unedited.

The defence argues that there was a lot more to Mr King's beating than the 56 baton blows and kicks captured by an amateur camerman's lens. Nor is it impossible that they will persuade a jury of this for a second time. American television companies have blurred the line between reality and fiction by churning out a stream of 'docu-dramas' about sleazy court cases or bizarre murder mysteries in which the facts have been as embellished as a pair of iron gates around a Beverly Hills mansion.

A reminder of this came only last month when NBC was forced to apologise, not once but twice, for introducing misleading film clips into reports. The officers' lawyers must have been rubbing their hands in quiet satisfaction, storing the information up for a future trip to the clump of microphones outside the courtroom.

The attorneys are not alone in the scramble for a sound-bite. Billboards have sprouted up in inner city Los Angeles which show a cluster of hands - black, white, brown and yellow - clasped happily together above a city skyline. They are meant as an appeal for unity, an initiative organised by the departing mayor, Tom Bradley, to head off further riots if the officers again walk free.

But as Mr Bradley unveiled one such sign at the junction of Florence and Normandie, the now-notorious inner-city crossroads where last year's riots started, a young man shoved through the assembled crowd of reporters. It was 'Li'l Monster', a black former gang member whose television appearances have been frequent enough to endow him with celebrity status. His performance had its desired effect. Reports of Mr Bradley's appearance gave equal weight to Li'l Monster's loud complaints about police brutality.