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Soul Searching in Justice System Follows Riots

May 29, 1992

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A verdict triggered the mayhem, and future jury trials could touch off more unrest. Lawyers and legal experts are viewing with growing wariness the judicial system they have lived by.

What if Officer Laurence Powell is acquitted in his retrial for the beating of black motorist Rodney King? What if four black men are convicted of beating white truck driver Reginald Denny during the riots here last month? Would those verdicts spawn more violence?

In such a climate, many wonder if jurors can ever again enter a deliberation room with open minds, fearless and determined to be unbiased.

Peter Arenella, a criminal law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the justice system often is racist. But he said it could work if juries are balanced.

″I have a lot of faith in the jury system when jurors represent different world views,″ he said.

Arenella believes that transferring the trial of four white policemen in the beating of a black man to conservative, heavily white, suburban Ventura County gave the defendants a crucial edge.

The defense claimed the transfer was necessary to insure a fair trial because of the intense media coverage in Los Angeles.

″There is no requirement in the law that a jury should reflect ethnic diversity,″ Arenella said. ″But if you are selecting a jury in an ethnically diverse community, you are more likely to achieve that result.″

He believes the trial should have remained in Los Angeles, an amalgam of races and nationalities. He supports the decision of Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg to return the retrial of Powell to Los Angeles.

Powell was the lone policeman not totally acquitted in the 1991 videotaped beating of King. Jurors deadlocked on whether he was guilty of assault under color of authority. Weisberg has set Powell’s trial for Oct. 19 to allow ″a cooling down period″ in the riot-torn community.

But Powell’s lawyer, Michael Stone, planned to appeal.

″The only difference in the political turmoil of 1992 as compared to 1991 is that they turned up the heat about 100 degrees,″ Stone said. ″It is riskier now to try this case in Los Angeles County.″

He predicted that fear of future riots would lead Los Angeles jurors to deliver a ″politically correct″ verdict and convict Powell whether or not the evidence proved it.

Three days of rioting left 52 people dead and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Powell’s case isn’t the only legal powder keg ahead. A federal grand jury is studying possible civil rights charges against Powell and the three other officers.

And four black men face trial for attempted murder and robbery in the April 29 attack on Denny, the white truck driver. He was pulled from his vehicle and beaten while live TV helicopter cameras broadcast the scene.

On Thursday, 33 new felony charges were filed against three of them. Prosecutors said they assaulted a dozen other people, and said that violence helped start the nation’s worst riot in a century.

Compton City Councilwoman Patricia Moore, who has championed the cause of the four blacks, called the charges racist prosecution. Supporters of the four have said Denny provoked his beating by shouting racial epithets.

″This is the craziest mockery of justice,″ she said. ″This is not liberty and freedom for all.″

The initial court appearances of the four men drew a throng of onlookers, and black community leaders portrayed the case as a mirror image of the King beating. Both involved a videotape, a beating and four defendants.

But Arenella said the cases aren’t comparable because their facts are so different. King was stopped for leading police on a high speed chase. Denny was wrested from his truck for no apparent reason other than the color of his skin.

″It’s not logical to compare them,″ he said. ″But this is a time when logic and rationality are not paramount.″

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