On March 3, 1991, three Los Angeles police officers–under the supervision of a fourth–beat Mr. Rodney King with batons and kicked him.
King never fully recovered from the injuries he suffered.
George Holliday made a video of the beating, as he stood on his apartment balcony across the street. His video became world-famous. Holliday, however, was not the only witness from that building.
Another resident saw what happened from his balcony, and he also had a video camera in his apartment. But he thought of the camera too late and only managed to capture the aftermath of the beating. Other residents of the building just watched with horror from their balconies.
They were all shaken and disgusted by what they saw. All of them.
Last month, in the prosecution’s closing argument in the Derek Chauvin case, attorney Steve Schleicher spoke to the jury, who had seen multiple videos of George Floyd being killed. Schleicher said: “Believe your eyes.”
In 1992, prosecutor Terry White used the same words in his closing argument before the jury in Simi Valley, California. They had seen Holliday’s video.
“Believe your eyes,” White told them.
In Minneapolis last month, the jurors did believe their eyes, and they convicted the criminal of the crime. Three decades ago, however, the jurors did not convict, and riots ensued.
Why didn’t the jury convict the officers that assaulted Mr. King? What had happened during that trial in Simi Valley?
In the last post on this topic, we considered the change of judge and “venue” for the trial.
The California Appeal Court ordered the trial moved out of Los Angeles County. The new judge, Stanley Weisberg, chose the brand-new east-county courthouse in neighboring Ventura County. The idea was to find jurors less involved in Los-Angeles politics, and thereby more capable of impartiality.
They did not, in fact, find such jurors. As Marvin Zalman and Maurisa Gates put it, in a Cleveland State Law Review article:
The court asked whether the defendants could have received a trial by an impartial jury within Los Angeles when it should have asked whether the defendants could have received a trial by an impartial jury anywhere in the state. By not thinking what “impartial” meant in a situation like the Rodney King case, the Court of Appeal simply replaced the demographics, values, and prejudices of Los Angeles County by those of another place, which turned out to be Ventura, just over the county line.
Moving the trial from Los Angeles County to Ventura County influenced the outcome: it favored the defense. In fact, the venue change influenced the outcome so decisively that many observers came to regard it as the crucial fact for understanding the not-guilty verdict.
The federal government put the officers on trial a second time the following year. Wasn’t that “double jeopardy?” Our U.S. Constitution prohibits re-trying someone for the same crime a second time.
The American Civil Liberties Union has traditionally opposed any possible instance of double jeopardy. But the Southern-California chapter of the ACLU supported the second, federal trial anyway, on the grounds that the Simi Valley jury was not a true jury, because of the wrongful change of venue. Therefore the first trial was not really “jeopardy” for the officers. So the federal trial did not involve double jeopardy.
An interesting argument.
But the actual facts of the trial tell a different, more-complicated story. The change of venue did not, in and of itself, determine the outcome.
For one thing, the Simi Valley courthouse actually sat closer to the scene of the crime than the courthouse in downtown L.A. The beating took place in the suburbs.
Historians and legal scholars have lamented the absence of black jurors on the Simi-Valley jury. But there was never any guarantee that any black jurors would wind up in the jury box in L.A. county, either.
And, according to multiple accounts: Most, if not all, of the Simi Valley jurors showed up on Day One of the trial thinking that the four police officers were guilty of assault.
The jurors arrived thinking that because they had seen the videotape, just like most Americans had.
The videotape shows, with very little ambiguity, that officers Powell, Wind, and Briseno assaulted King for no good reason, and they did it under Koon’s supervision.
Not only that. Other evidence supported the conclusion that the officers had committed a crime. This evidence had found its way to the general public, before the trial started.
Officer Powell had, in a conversation with another officer earlier that evening, referred to blacks as “gorillas.”
After the beating, he sent a text message to the same officer: “Oops… I haven’t beat anyone that bad in a long time.”
After the arrest, Powell and Wind took King to the hospital, where nurses treated him for his extensive injuries. With nurses listening, Powell talked to his victim about Dodgers’ Stadium, then referred to the game of ‘hardball’ that they had just played.
In other words, additional damning evidence supported the idea that George Holliday had captured on film an accurate depiction of what had occurred. A group of thugs in uniform, legally carrying the weapons they used, beat a defenseless man nearly to death.
Now, King had indeed evaded a legitimate traffic stop–because he had violated his parole by speeding on the highway, and he panicked.
The thugs took the opportunity that situation presented, and they beat up a defenseless person, on the pretext that he did not immediately obey their commands. (King likely did not hear their commands at all; one of the parked squad cars had its siren blaring, and a police helicopter circled overhead.)
The officers had no doubt in their minds that they could get away with it. They held all the cards, after all.
Then, however, KTLA put Holliday’s video on air. The officers now found that they had to concoct an explanation for what everyone had seen with their own eyes. They had to come up with an alternate storyline, one that would keep them out of jail.
In the initial episode, they had brazenly beaten their victim. Now they proceeded brazenly to pull off a magnificent deception, all in accord with correct judicial procedure.
Sergeant Stacy Koon took the stand first, as the defense began to make its case in the Simi Valley courthouse, a year after the beating had occurred.
As Koon testified, he studiously avoided using the word “he” to refer to King. He repeated “Rodney King” over and over.
At one point in his testimony, Koon referred to King as a “bear” with super-human “Hulk-like” strength.
Referring to the parts of the videotape in which King writhes around on the ground under the officers’ baton blows, Koon never said that King “bent” his leg, he always said that King “cocked” his leg, like a gun.
(Koon’s attorney went on to say, in closing argument, that Rodney King appeared to the officers like “something out of a monster movie.”)
Koon told the jury that the officers had concluded that King was high on the street drug PCP (a psychoactive drug that had been popular in big cities in the mid-1980s). Koon held firm to this, even though PCP was never found in King’s system. The sergeant insisted to the jury: what mattered was, we thought he was high on PCP; we thought he was “dusted.”
The officers feared for their lives, Koon said. He then proceeded to regale the jurors with urban legends about PCP users. They can have a death grip. They can kill without remorse.
Then Koon told the jury that King attacked officer Laurence Powell.
(There was never any clear evidence of this.)
Rodney King had control of the situation, not us. If I hadn’t Tased him, I would have had to shoot him. If we hadn’t used our batons, we would have had to use our guns.
We were reacting appropriately, according to procedure, according to training. We had to subdue a dangerous ex-con. We had no choice.
Sergeant Koon took full responsibility for the actions of the subordinate officers, including the other three defendants. But Koon would not take responsibility for the beating captured on the the videotape.
Rodney King is responsible for what happened.
Koon did everything he could to project an air of professionalism. He emphasized his extensive experience and the wisdom he had gained over his years on the street. He explained the proper procedure for “escalation and de-escalation of force” in the course of making an arrest.
(Sergeant Koon went on to publish a book which argued that the LAPD’s prohibition of the “choke hold” caused the Rodney King beating.)
Koon got the jury to begin doubting their own eyes. As the jury forewoman, Dorothy Bailey, would later put it, in her memoir of the trial:
Sergeant Koon gave us a complete, detailed account of what happened. It was the first time that I had seriously considered the officers’ perceptions and their possible fears…
There’s no superhuman strength, because there’s no such thing as super-humans. Those exist in comic books.
–Steve Schleicher, talking about George Floyd in his closing argument last month, at the Derek Chauvin trial
[More to come on this.]