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Following Orders

Why did the jury vote to acquit the police officers who beat Rodney King?

Mike Nelson/Getty Images

For those who saw only the videotape of Rodney King receiving sixty-one baton blows in eighty-one seconds, the jury’s failure to convict is astonishing. The explanations offered by the jurors bordered on the bizarre: King controlled the action. If he had complied with orders, the beating would have stopped. The officers had no choice but to act the way they did. With the possible exception of Officer Laurence Powell, race was not a motivating factor for the police. They were just following rules. Indeed, the jurors said they themselves were just obeying the judge’s instructions and applying them to the facts. They had no choice either.

The public has reached some simple conclusions about this verdict. One is that it was determined by race. There is nothing so terrible, the jurors seemed to think, and certainly nothing criminal, about police roughing up a black man, especially a black man with a criminal record who appeared to be a drug user, after a dangerous, high-speed chase. Another conclusion is that only an all-white jury, drawn from a more homogeneous community than Los Angeles, could have reached this result. It was foolish, unnecessary, and even unfair for the courts to change the venue of the trial to Ventura County.

These conclusions are, in fact, substantially correct. If it were not for King’s race, at least some of the officers would almost certainly have been convicted for using excessive force. If the trial had been held in Los Angeles, there surely would have been convictions. The decision to change venue to Ventura County was a legal and political mistake. But matters are still a bit more complicated.

The post-trial statements of the jurors reveal that they unequivocally bought the defense view of the case. Principally through the testimony of Sergeant Charles Dukes, an unflappable “use of force expert” who teaches at the LAPD Academy, and defendant Sergeant Stacey Koon, the commanding officer at the scene, the defense set forth a theory that was internally consistent, explained much of the videotape (the last fifteen seconds where King is beaten lying on the ground were difficult to address directly), and portrayed the police as good soldiers.

The LAPD has highly structured rules on the use of force, based on a “command and confront” model. An officer is allowed to inflict physical pain to obtain compliance with commands when confronting a suspect. Striking a suspect about the body (but not the head) with batons is actually taught at the police academy. The specific technique taught, and employed by the defendants, is the “power stroke.”

Since the videotape shows that King never complied with police commands—arguably he lunged toward the officers at the beginning of the tape, kept getting up, continued to raise his hands, and resisted when the officers tried to pin him down or “swarm” him—they had the right, under LAPD rules, to persist in hitting King about the body. The tape does not show a blow to King’s head or face. Prosecution witnesses said a head blow occurred before the tape started. Defense witnesses said King suffered injuries to his face from hitting the ground, not from a baton.

The “command and confront” logic of the defense theory was perfectly gauged for the jury that tried the case. Nine of twelve jurors had either served or were closely associated with some branch of the military. Five middle-aged men were in the Navy; one graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served twenty-two years. One woman juror, 64, was with the Army at the end of World War II and now works for Industries, Inc., supervising government contracts for outfitting Navy ships. Another woman, 65, was with the Air Force. Another, a 40-year-old Hispanic, served in the Army. The ninth juror with military ties is a 38-year-old man who works at Unisys, where he designed military software.

As the trial unfolded, the commentators on Court TV recognized that the defense was doing a surprisingly good job in defusing the tape and framing issues from the police perspective. As the defense concluded with the testimony of defendants Theodore Briseno and Powell, however, some seemingly fatal cracks opened in its tightly crafted case. Briseno offered compelling testimony that he thought the baton blows of his fellow officers were sickeningly excessive, that Koon had lost control, and that he (Briseno) had communicated these beliefs to his partner, Officer Rolando Solano, at the scene. Solano, a defense witness, corroborated Briseno’s anguish. Powell himself was battered in cross examination by numerous inconsistencies—the prosecutor, Terry White, in his closing argument created a chart showing more than twenty demonstrable “lies” told by Powell. But most important, during Powell’s testimony (due to a tactical blunder by his lawyer) the jury learned of a nasty racist description he offered of a domestic dispute he had encountered earlier in the evening (“Gorillas in the Mist,” “Who be they?” “Ha, ha, ha”). For the first time in the trial, White, a black prosecutor who had to that point downplayed the racial angle, hammered it home.

But the jury did not respond. Powell’s racist remarks only underscored the unstated racial premise in the defense’s “command and confront” theory. As Koon, expert witness Dukes, and the defense lawyers broke down the tape frame by frame, and talked about the extraordinary, continuing danger posed by an uncompliant King, the racial imagery was plain. King was an unusually large man. He did not seem to respond to the electronic shock of the teaser gun, or an electronic harpoon shot. He acted like he was on PCP. He was dangerous. Somehow, the racial barrier prevented this jury from seeing a human being under the baton blows.

The result surely would have been different if there were blacks on the jury, or the jurors were less homogeneous in terms of their background. And there is no doubt that a more heterogeneous jury would have been selected if the trial had been kept in L.A. In California the jury pool is drawn from all those people in a county who are either registered to vote or have a driver’s license. Los Angeles County has 8.8 million people, 60 percent of whom are Hispanic, black, or Asian; Ventura County has a population of 669,000, 33 percent of whom are minority. The jury pool for this case was all of Ventura County, not Simi Valley alone, as is widely believed, but it was still vastly different from the pool in L.A. County.

Why change the venue? Courts in California and elsewhere have been reluctant to change venues from big cities no matter how much prejudicial pretrial publicity has occurred. In particular, courts are reluctant to move a case from a heterogeneous jury pool to a homogeneous jury pool. There are strong reasons for supporting this reluctance (see “Race Against Time,” page 7). First, justice is served when the broadest cross section of a community sits on a jury. Second, in highly publicized cases, jurors in a neighboring area are just as likely to have formed opinions. In such cases, whether venue is changed or not, courts must rely upon the jury selection process to screen out biased jurors.

The California appellate court that ordered the change of venue in the King case was not persuaded that the saturation publicity required a change of venue. What proved decisive was the political turmoil instigated by the case—the dispute between the mayor and the chief of police, the impaneling of a blue ribbon commission to make recommendations about reforming the police department, and the extraordinary spectacle of the original trial judge being removed from the case because of improper ex parte communications with the prosecutor and the appellate court. The court observed that the nature of the publicity differed from that in other notorious criminal cases, such as Charles Manson: “Manson was not entangled in local politics,” it declared, “did not focus on local politicians, and did not involve issues unique to Los Angeles County.” It is hard to dismiss this aspect of the appellate court’s decision as unreasonable. Indeed, in a passage both tragic and ironic, it noted that riots had been predicted if venue were changed and the officers acquitted. But as the court pointed out, it would be impermissible to abridge defendants’ right to a fair trial on the basis of predictions of violence.

The venue problem in the King case does not lie in the appellate court’s decision that some change was necessary; rather, the mistake was made by the trial judge in deciding to move the case to Ventura County rather than Alameda County (Oakland), apparently the only county under consideration that closely resembled Los Angeles demographically. The prosecutor’s decision not to oppose Ventura County was also at fault.

Maybe the trial court felt the inconvenience to the parties and witnesses outweighed the advantages of moving to a more distant but more heterogeneous venue. Maybe the prosecutor overestimated the power of the videotape and underestimated the difficulties involved in convicting police officers generally. Whatever they were thinking, it was a mistake.