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Defense Rests in Rodney King Case

By Jim Newton
Los Angeles Times


Lawyers for four police officers charged with violating Rodney G. King's civil rights brought their case to an abrupt conclusion Thursday, resting a defense that stumbled at times and depends largely on whether jurors believe the testimony of Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, the only officer to take the witness stand.

The move by the defense lawyers took federal prosecutors by surprise and forced the judge to dismiss the jury for the week, since no rebuttal witnesses were ready to testify. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. Clymer, one of two lead prosecutors in the case, said he expected to present the government's rebuttal case Monday -- which could clear the way for the jury to begin deliberating by Thursday or Friday, following closing arguments by both sides.

With the trial drawing to an unexpectedly quick close, political leaders and business executives turned with new urgency to the potential fallout from the case. Among other things, debate heightened over whether the judge should delay disclosing the verdicts so law enforcement authorities can mobilize. City officials also said they were exploring the legality of postponing the April 20 municipal election should there be a repeat of the unrest that followed the verdicts in last year's state trial.

Although the defense ended its case Thursday, a last-minute debate over prosecution evidence could delay the start of jury deliberations by a few days. Over furious defense objections, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies ruled that an edited tape of Officer Theodore J. Briseno's testimony during last year's state trial may be played for the jury.

Briseno testified against his co-defendants in that case, and defense attorneys fought vigorously to keep the state testimony from being played in the federal trial. They told Davies that they would ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene Friday and overrule the decision to allow the tape into evidence.

Meanwhile, the defendants concluded their case without calling another witness. Harland W. Braun, the lawyer for Briseno, had presented prosecutors with a list of 10 possible witnesses, but did not summon any of them. He said later that the list had merely been a bluff to keep prosecutors off balance.

"I just wanted to keep Clymer up to 3 in the morning," Braun said.

Braun, who has delighted in tweaking the government lawyers, outside of court called the federal prosecutors "evil people" and "scum," and accused them of waging a political prosecution against the four officers.

Braun's decision to rest his case capped 13 days of defense testimony, during which lawyers for the officers called two dozen witnesses to the stand -- scoring mixed results in the process. Most were Los Angeles police officers, but the defense witnesses also included a City Council member, a member of the Police Commission and a California Highway Patrol officer who cried on the stand as she recounted the beating.

Of all those witnesses, however, none was as important as Koon, who supervised the March 3, 1991, arrest and beating of King.

Because Koon was the only one of the officers to take the witness stand, his testimony effectively spoke for all four defendants. Thus, their fate rests largely on how jurors respond to the sergeant's version of the event.

During his three days on the witness stand, Koon testified that he took full responsibility for every baton blow and kick during the arrest. He said he gave the orders to strike King in the hopes that his officers could "cripple" him, and therefore prevent him from standing up.

Had King been allowed to rise to his feet, Koon said, officers might have been forced to kill him.

"Stacey Koon makes or breaks this case," said Michael P. Stone, the lawyer for Officer Laurence M. Powell. "If the jury believes Stacey Koon, we all walk. If the jury doesn't believe Stacey Koon, we're all in trouble."

If convicted, all four of the defendants could face up to 10 years in prison and could be fined up to $250,000 each. Powell, Briseno and Timothy E. Wind are charged with kicking, stomping and hitting King with batons, depriving him of his right to be safe from the intentional use of unreasonable force. Koon is accused of allowing officers under his supervision to carry out an unreasonable beating.

The four defendants' acquittal on state charges in the arrest and beating of King triggered the Los Angeles riots last spring.

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Defense medical experts challenged prosecution witnesses on the question of whether King was struck in the head with a baton. Direct baton blows to the head usually violate police department policy, but the defense experts said King's facial fractures were caused by a fall to the ground, not baton blows.

But defense attorneys struggled with a number of witnesses whose testimony undercut the officers' cases. During a meeting Tuesday night, they decided that they were better off concluding their case quickly. U.S. District Judge John G. Davies had shown impatience with the pace of the proceedings, and the defense lawyers were worried that they might weaken their case if they called more witnesses than they needed to.

"We got together and decided that less is better," Braun said. "Every time we called a witness, there was the potential for trouble."

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Peter Arenella, a University of California, Los Angeles, law school professor, said the defense strategy made sense. He credited lawyers for the officers with presenting a case that raised doubts about the prosecution account. But he and other analysts say the defense may have blundered when Stone called California Highway Patrol officer Melanie Singer to the stand.

During two days of testimony, Singer twice burst into tears when asked to describe the beating. She told jurors that she had seen Powell strike King six times in the head with his baton, a sight so shocking that she said she will remember it "until the day I die."

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Before resting their case, defense lawyers introduced two last pieces of evidence: transcripts of interviews that King gave to authorities while in custody and the shiny, black boot that Briseno wore on the night of the incident.

In those interviews, King gave accounts of the incident that differed in some respects from the testimony he delivered during the federal trial. In particular, King insisted many times that he was handcuffed and hogtied when police beat him.

That contention is not borne out by the videotape.

Braun presented the boot in order to show that it is lightweight with a rubber sole, not a heavy "jackboot."

In presenting their cases, the lawyers for the officers avoided the rift that split their efforts during last year's state trial. Briseno testified in that case that his fellow officers, particularly Powell, were "out of control" and that the beating was "wrong."

Briseno also told jurors in that case that Powell hit King in the head with his baton, and that King did not appear to be resisting during many of the blows.

This time, Briseno did not take the stand, and his lawyer avoided tangling with the other defense counsel throughout their cases.

But a ruling by Davies after the defense rested on Thursday could expose jurors in the federal trial to some of Briseno's testimony from the state case. Davies had earlier ruled that federal prosecutors could play an excerpted tape of that testimony for the jury, but prosecutors elected not to present it during their case.