What It Was Like To Be On The Rodney King Jury
Dorothy Bailey, who died in 2012, served as jury foreman for the first Rodney King trial in Simi Valley. Her recollections of the trial's opening day, as excerpted from "Moral Uncertainty: Inside the Rodney King Juries", offer fascinating insight into one of the most important chapters in Los Angeles history — how a jury failed to convict the four police officers accused of beating King.
Thursday, March 5, 1992
The defendants certainly looked innocent, not at all like criminals. They were all very well-groomed and looked comfortable in their business suits. Sergeant Stacey C. Koon, at 41, was the oldest. He had close-cropped blond hair and a kind of a swagger. Officer Theodore J. Briseno, 39, had a thin, narrow face, black hair and a neat mustache. Officer Timothy E. Wind, 31, and Officer Laurence M. Powell, 29, were sturdily built younger men.
Although all four officers were younger than I was, and in fact two of them were about the age of some of my children, they seemed like mature men. Officer Powell, particularly, did not look like he was only 29. They were none of them babies, and I had no particular sympathetic feelings for them.
A lot of thoughts went through my head as I looked at them. I wondered how police officers could get themselves into the situation that they were in. I knew that sometimes people go into law enforcement as a career because they enjoy exercising authority and power over others. I wondered if that was true of these four and if that was what had happened that night a year ago.
I couldn’t tell much from their faces. They were all quite stone-faced. The judge explained that we would begin with opening statements from both sides, which he described as “basically a road map” of what the evidence would be. A year and two days after Rodney King led the California Highway Patrol on a high-speed chase along the Los Angeles freeways and was beaten by the officers who arrested him, attorneys for the prosecution and the police officers presented their versions of the facts.
I got two major surprises during the opening statements. The first was the video. It was impossible to have lived in California and not have seen the videotape of the four officers beating Rodney King. Perhaps it was impossible to live in America and not see it. If you had a television set on in your house during March 1991, you saw that tape. But before the trial began, I had watched it on television only a couple of times. After that, because of the aversion I have to violence, I deliberately left the room or changed the station if it was on. I had not paid any particular attention to news accounts, but my impression was that the police had treated a suspect in a brutal fashion.
Although I had not had any personal experience with police brutality, I was not so naive as to think that it didn’t happen. Maybe not in Camarillo, where my husband and I had lived for the past eight years after moving from Utah because of my job, but I had no doubts that the reports I had heard about police brutality against minorities in big cities were true. I was aware of the Los Angeles Police Department being accused of police brutality against minorities. It was horrible, certainly not anything I condoned, but I was not so naive as to be unaware of the phenomenon. I knew that part of the reason this case had attracted worldwide attention was that the beating had been captured on videotape by an amateur cameraman in a nearby apartment, so the police could not deny that it had happened.
Minorities had complained for years that this sort of thing went on, but it was always the word of a suspected criminal against a police officer, so it was difficult to prove. In this case, there was video that made it obvious that a man had gotten beaten, and that there were a whole lot of officers there when it happened. It certainly looked like there had been excessive force used. I know that there are two sides to every story, so I expected that the defense would have a case to put on. But I assumed that the videotape showed everything that had happened.
I was amazed to discover how much more of it existed than had been shown on television. The whole tape was only eighty-one seconds, but even so, only a small portion of that eighty-one seconds had been shown on television. The whole tape, seen in context, presented a far different scenario than what the public had seen. During the prosecution’s opening statement, they put a big screen television right next to the jury box and showed us the whole tape.
During the course of the trial, we saw it over and over, at regular speed, in slow motion, and frame by frame. It was brutal and hard to watch. I wanted to avert my eyes, but I had answered in the affirmative the judge’s query about my ability to observe the video, so I forced myself to concentrate on it, in spite of the violence.
Prosecutor Terry White made it clear that he felt that the video alone would be enough to convince us that excessive and unreasonable force was used. Right from the start, I was not particularly impressed with Mr. White. A professorial-looking black man, short and slight, with glasses and a receding hairline, Mr. White tended to be overly dramatic and very emotional in his presentation. It seemed like an act to me, like he was putting on a show for us.
Mr. White said that the video clearly showed Mr. King on the ground, not resisting, yet the beating continued. He conceded that Mr. King had been drinking and had led the California Highway Patrol officers on a high-speed chase, which was why they had stopped him in the first place. But “whatever King was or what he did, it did not justify what you saw in that videotape,” he told us.
He said that the evidence would show that Officer Powell had struck Mr. King repeatedly in the head “much as a batter would swing at a pitch.” He said the blows split the skin on King’s cheek, causing blood to “spurt out.” In the videotape, he told us, “You will see a man who was down, a man who was not aggressive, who was not resisting. And those blows continued and continued for no just reason.” Mr. White said that at one point Officer Briseno seemed to step forward and try to restrain Officer Powell from using his baton. Moments later, Mr. White said, Officer Briseno walked over to Rodney King and stomped on his head and neck. Mr. White said that the evidence would show that when they got back to the police station, Sergeant Koon and Mr. Powell had prepared false reports “because they knew they could not justify the beating.”
After Mr. White had finished, it was the defense’s turn. Of course, I expected that their point of view would be different. Darryl Mounger spoke first, on behalf of Sergeant Koon, saying, “This is the first opportunity to tell you what really happened.” Mr. Mounger said there was no evidence that Sergeant Koon had struck Mr. King, or anyone else. He said that as superior officer at the scene, Sergeant Koon, who had fourteen years experience in law enforcement, was in charge of the other officers. But he said the person who was in control that night was Rodney King himself. If he had not behaved in the way he did, then the officers would not have had to act the way they did, Mr. Mounger contended.
He implied that only someone running from the law would fail to stop when a highway patrol officer was chasing them “with flashing lights and blaring sirens.” He said that Sergeant Koon observed that “King appeared to be under the influence of something, with perspiration, a blank stare and watery eyes.”
Mr. Mounger said that Sergeant Koon didn’t think there was any need for deadly force, so he fired two shots from a legal Taser stun gun to try to subdue Mr. King. “Sergeant Koon was out there doing his job, and so were his officers,” Mr. Mounger said. Speaking for Officer Powell, his attorney, Michael Stone, replayed parts of the video. He said that the FBI enhancement of some blurry parts of the tape made it easier to see that Mr. King was defying the officers who were trying to arrest him. “See that? You can see Mr. King coming up off the ground. He starts up and lunges at Powell. Then he gets knocked back down to the ground again.”
He said that officers are trained in the use of force to restrain suspects, and that in the case of Mr. King, they had to use “every level of force except deadly force.” He said that Mr. King displayed all the symptoms of someone on the hallucinogenic drug PCP, and that the officers believed he was on PCP. He said that Mr. King continued to ignore the commands of the policemen, even with guns drawn.
In his opening statement for Officer Wind, attorney Paul DePasquale said that his client, who graduated from the police academy only four months before the incident occurred, stayed well within department policy for use of force. He said that Officer Wind applied proper textbook, classic form in his use of the baton, backing off and assessing the situation, and using the baton only when Mr. King started to rise. Mr. DePasquale said that when Officer Wind first arrived at the scene, he heard someone say that Mr. King was on PCP. Officer Wind had never dealt with a suspect on PCP, but he had been taught in his training that officers had been killed dealing with such suspects. Because of that, Officer Wind felt that the lives of the policemen were in danger, Mr. DePasquale said. He said that Wind had only used his baton when Mr. King started to get up, and he used it in accordance with his training, because it was “his responsibility to participate and to keep Mr. King from getting up.” Mr. DePasquale said that Mr. King failed to react to the Taser darts, which added to Officer Wind’s belief that he was on PCP.
“That should have ended it. Those things hurt. It should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.”
The second big surprise of the day for me came when defense attorney John Barnett separated his client, Officer Briseno, from the other defendants. He contended that his client tried to protect Rodney King from the baton blows of the other officers. We had been told by the judge that even though the four defendants were being tried at the same time, it was our job to consider each one separately. However, I had envisioned a unified position on the part of the four officers, and that they would all tell the same story.
I did not expect that Mr. Barnett would accuse the other officers of excessive force. But it was quite obvious from Mr. Barnett’s opening statement that Officer Briseno thought that the other three were guilty. Mr. Barnett was very dramatic, using the term “senseless beatings.” He said that Officer Briseno was trying to stop the other officers because he believed they were “out of control and he had to be mindful of his own safety.”
He said that when Briseno kicked or stomped on Mr. King he was not trying to inflict injury, but rather to hold Mr. King down to prevent any further baton blows. Wielding Officer Powell’s baton like a baseball bat and standing facing the jury box, Mr. Barnett said, “Mr. Powell was using power strokes, hitting backward and forward like the Louisville Slugger.” He said his client pushed Mr. Powell back “because he was afraid Mr. King was going to be further beaten.” Mr. Barnett almost sounded as if he were part of the prosecution. His position, that Officer Briseno thought that the others were guilty, came as a shock to me.
© 2017 by Bob Almond and Kathleen Neumeyer. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Andalou Books. Excerpted from Moral Uncertainty Inside the Rodney King Juries by
Dorothy Bailey, Simi Valley foreman, and Bob Almond, federal foreman, with Kathleen Neumeyer.
Dorothy Bailey, foreman of the first Rodney King trial, retired two weeks after the verdict from her job as program manager for a small, black-owned business primarily engaged in government contracts to supply newly constructed U.S. Navy and foreign military ships with technical manuals. They sold their home in Camarillo and moved out of state. She never lived in Simi Valley. Bob Almond, foreman of the federal trial that found two of the police officers guilty of violating Rodney King’s civil rights, was a professional engineer for the Port of Los Angeles. Kathleen Neumeyer, as a reporter for United Press International, covered the murder trials of Sirhan B. Sirhan for the assassination of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and of Charles Manson, as well as the Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon Papers trial. Later she covered the federal drug trial of John DeLorean for The Times of London, and the murder trial of Elisabeth Broderick for Ladies Home Journal.