Racial tension grows in LA as hitches bedevil riot case

THE volatile trial of two black men accused of severely beating a white lorry driver in Los Angeles is at the centre of mounting confusion and racial outrage following the departure of two jurors in the middle of deliberations.

In all, five jurors have left at different stages of proceedings, whittling down the supply of alternate panelists to only one. Last night a defence lawyer was preparing to try to remove yet another, raising speculation that the case was destined to end in a mistrial.

The trial has become the focus of increasingly heated emotions, particularly among the black community of Los Angeles, who believe that it supplies further evidence that there is a historic pattern of racial bias within the judicial system. It has also prompted questions about the capacity of a randomly selected jury to function properly in a racially diverse, deeply divided city.

The two defendants, Henry Watson, 29, and Damian Williams, 20, face the possibility of life in prison after being accused of multiple offences, including attempting to murder Reginald Denny, who was dragged out of his lorry and assaulted beneath circling TV helicopters at the start of last year's riots in Los Angeles. Pictures of his beating were broadcast worldwide.

By contrast, the two white police officers found guilty of civil rights abuses in the beating of the black motorist, Rodney King, this week reported to begin 30-month sentence at a federal prison camp at Dublin, near San Francisco - a minimum-security institution known by some as 'Club Fed', where there are no walls or bars and guards wear slacks and ties.

It has not escaped the notice of the black community that if Mr Williams and Mr Watson are convicted, they are likely to be sent to a more rigorous and dangerous state prison where there are few amenities but no shortage of fences. Their supporters say they have been made scapegoats by the authorities who they say are anxious to find someone to blame for the riots. Despite 50 deaths and the huge scale of the unrest, there have been few other major prosecutions.

But, in recent days, controversy has focused on the jury in the Denny beating case. On Tuesday, the only white male on the jury was removed after complaining of 'personal hardship' and the panel was instructed to start deliberating anew - even though they had already reached verdicts on two charges against Mr Watson.

A day earlier, to loud protests from supporters of the defendants, Judge John Ouderkirk took the unusual step of getting rid of a middle-aged black female juror, after a week of deliberations. The judge said the woman, who was the subject of complaints from the rest of the panel, had 'failed to deliberate as the law defines it'. But his move has been interpreted by some black community activists as an attempt to secure a conviction for Mr Denny's alleged assailants, by getting rid of a juror who may have been arguing for leniency or their acquittal.