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Rodney King case starts a ratings war: The racially charged trial is a nice little earner for some, writes Phil Reeves in Los Angeles

SERGEANT Stacey Koon looked a little uncomfortable as we rode up and down trying to reach a floor in the federal court building at which the lift refused to stop. No, he said, he would not speak to a British journalist. He had a contract with a US television network.

Only moments earlier a jury of eight men and four women had retired to discuss not only his fate, but the outcome of a trial that is widely seen both as a crucial test of the US judicial system's treatment of blacks and police conduct. The judge's closing plea that they should not be influenced 'by any external consequences' - their fear, for instance, that their verdicts will trigger a repeat of last year's riots - was still ringing in their ears.

For a man caught so unpleasantly in history's spotlight, Mr Koon looked surprisingly pleased with himself. 'None of us will be saying anything. You won't hear a word from us,' he said in his light, slightly lisping voice. 'We have all signed contracts.' So even the four men cast in the role of villain, the policemen who face the prospect of up to 10 years in jail if found guilty of violating Rodney King's civil rights, are cashing in.

To be fair, the officers, who face big legal bills, are far from the only ones. Mr King, whose beating by the police comprises one of the world's most famous television clips, has a film contract, and is kept under guard while his attorney prepares a multi- million dollar civil damages claim against Los Angeles city. His aunt has been cranking out T-shirts, and is planning a book. Daryl Gates, the former police chief of Los Angeles, has published his memoirs. Mr Koon has also published a book, a draft of which almost landed him in severe trouble because it contained racially insensitive material.

Several of the defence lawyers have made the most of the publicity surrounding the trial, spouting carefully tailored soundbites to the clutter of cameras outside the court. At times, these have got out of hand: one lawyer, Harland Braun, called the US federal prosecutors 'scum', describing one as 'an SS officer for the civil rights division'. During his closing argument Mr Braun (mindful of the Easter season) compared his client, Officer Theodore Briseno, to Christ being condemned by Pontius Pilate.

And the television media have stepped up their ratings war, cranking up fears of further riots in Los Angeles by repeatedly replaying riot footage. For weeks, news bulletins have also featured staged pictures of baton- wielding policemen charging around, carrying out riot-training. There have been countless appearances by police and politicians, anxious to avoid being accused of being unprepared and desperate to end criticism of their lamentable performance during last year's unrest.

Even in south-central Los Angeles, riot forecasting has become a minor industry in which black youths charge reporters dollars 5 ( pounds 3) in return for a dire prediction of trouble.

Los Angeles is frightened, divided, and more heavily armed than ever before. As the city began its vigil, awaiting the jury's verdict, community workers went door-to-door urging calm. Several peace marches were held. The police department went on to a heightened state of readiness, preparing to deploy thousands of officers on the streets as the verdict is announced. Today 600 National Guard troops will go on duty in the city, ready go into action if trouble erupts.

But the prophets of unrest overlook the differences between Los Angeles a year ago and now. The riots partly erupted because of the stunning surprise of the officers' acquittals; that element of shock is no longer present.

A poll by the Los Angeles Times published yesterday found the majority of the city's residents were calm and, although fearful of another riot, did not believe violence was inevitable. Half of those questioned said there was a greater danger of trouble being incited by the overreaction of the police.

(Photograph omitted)