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Opportunity knocks for King jurors

AMERICANS living in smoggy, crime-ridden Los Angeles have much to endure, but there is one civic duty that must strike horror in the heart of even the most devoted resident. There can be few worse fates than serving on the jury in the Rodney King case.

When jurors in last year's trial decided they could not convict the police officers who beat Mr King, they received death threats and anonymous telephone calls giving a body-count in the riots triggered by their verdict. They felt vilified by the establishment and media, which saw their verdict as racist.

Determining the outcome of the officers' second trial - this time on civil rights charges - can bring only misery to the 12 selected jurors who will be aware that more acquittals could unleash further violence, while a decision to convict could lead to allegations that they bowed to social pressure. Or so you would think.

However, in the world capital of entertainment, there are those who are prepared to face much torment for a brief, and perhaps lucrative, moment of fame.

During jury selection, one candidate talked of 'a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'. Another, a student, pulled out of a full term of a scholarship-funded course to take part (he was dismissed by the court for 'having an agenda'). A third agreed that selling her story was an appealing idea, and explained: 'I am a capitalist, of course, being an American.'

None of this makes life easier for US District Judge John Davies, an Australian Olympic gold medallist swimmer, who has the almost impossible job of empanelling a jury which has not already made its mind up. The case has been complicated by commercial interests - one officer has published a book, and Mr King has sold his film rights.

The questioning of potential jurors began last week. The jury's racial make-up will be critical - many blacks were outraged that there were no black jurors in the first trial, held in a white suburb.

The first 12 to be called comprised two blacks, an Hispanic, and eight whites, but this changed during four days of examination which exposed the deep divisions caused by the case. Some were dismissed for sympathising excessively with Mr King; others for strongly supporting the police.

In all, 21 were removed either 'for cause' (ie, exhibiting bias) or by attorneys exercising peremptory challenges. The latter allows up to 14 people to be dismissed by the defence, and eight by the prosecution, for no specified reason - although the judge can overrule if race is a suspected motive.

Although selection is not yet over, the panel has been whittled down to one black and 11 whites. This is good news for the four officers, as there is a greater chance that a predominantly white jury will support their right to maintain law and order, come what may.