Verdict in Los Angeles trial deepens racial rift: Jury clears blacks of attempting to kill white truck driver during riots

THE RACIALLY explosive trial of two black men who beat a white lorry driver in the Los Angeles riots came to a controversial close yesterday after verdicts that are only likely to deepen racial rifts in the United States.

The jury acquitted one of the men, Damian Williams, of a final remaining charge of attempted murder, despite television pictures showing Reginald Denny being dragged from his vehicle, kicked and pelted with missiles - including a brick at the head. The trucker is still recovering from the near fatal assault, in which he received almost 100 skull fractures.

Their decision means that the men were found guilty of a solitary felony - a charge of mayhem against Williams, 20, which carries a maximum of eight years in prison - and a handful of minor misdemeanours. The judge declared a mistrial over a remaining assault charge against Henry Watson, 29, after the jury deadlocked. He was acquitted of attempted murder on Monday, and last night walked free from jail.

The verdicts caused widespread delight among American blacks, who have compared the trial with that of four white Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, a black motorist. Only two officers were convicted, receiving 30-month prison terms that were lower than federal sentencing guidelines. Black community leaders argued that the verdicts proved that the courts - long seen as historically biased against blacks - were capable of compromise.

But there was fury elsewhere, particularly in the white-dominated suburbs where the fear of crime runs high, but also among Latinos and Asians. Radio phone-ins were inundated with callers complaining that the racially mixed jury had endorsed a violent criminal attack because it was politically motivated, or intimidated by fear of reprisals.

The case has done little to ease the painful racial tensions in Los Angeles - the most ethnically diverse metropolis in the world - which were exposed during three days of civil unrest last year in which more than 50 people died and hundreds of buildings were destroyed. There were predictions that the verdicts delivered a coup to white hate groups, who will find it easier to recruit middle Americans who feel victimised by race quotas and black crime.

Why the jury reached its conclusion remains to be seen, but speculation last night centred on several factors. Was the jury swayed by fear for their safety or of further street violence? One of the 10 women and two men on the jury has admitted feeling afraid. Five others left during the hearing - including two for sickness, one for misconduct and one because the judge ruled her incapable of deliberating. When a jury pool was first summoned, most people did not turn up.

Did racial politics prevail over facts? The panel consisted of four blacks, four Latinos, two Asians and two whites and bickered for days in the jury room. Did the panel share the view of many in Los Angeles that the two men were being used as scapegoats by the authorities, who have brought few other big riot-related prosecutions? This impression was reinforced after the riots, when the then chief of police, Daryl Gates, borrowed a leaf from J Edgar Hoover's book and personally arrested Williams and Watson, assisted by scores of heavily-armed officers.

It deepened further when the Los Angeles District Attorney's office threw the book at them, initially charging them with more than 35 offences. The attempted murder charge, which the authorities pursued, proved a strategic mistake because it required the prosecution to prove that the men intended to kill Mr Denny. However graphic, television videotape provided few clues about their state of mind.

Above all, one question resounds. America has seen two powerful videotapes: one showing four policemen beating up a black, the other of blacks attacking a white trucker. Many now want to know how the courts can fail to punish people for committing such blatant crimes. Amid the clamour, one voice is struggling to be heard: Reginald Denny, the victim, wants to forgive and forget.