A Lesson From L.A. in the Zimmerman Case

A Lesson From L.A. in the Zimmerman Case

By Lou Cannon - July 18, 2013

Whatever one thinks of the jury verdict in the George Zimmerman case, history suggests that retrying him on federal charges would not produce a fairer outcome.

The last time a president of the United States and a U.S. attorney general disapproved of a jury verdict in a race-heightened case, they set in motion a series of events that produced a second verdict as suspect as the first.

It happened in 1992 when a suburban Simi Valley jury acquitted four white Los Angeles Police Department officers of excessive force and other charges in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American. The verdict, coupled with a woeful lack of preparation by the LAPD, touched off the deadliest American civil disturbance since the Draft Riot of 1863 in New York City.

By the time the Los Angeles rioting ended on May 4, 1992, 54 people had died with another 2,328 treated for injuries in emergency rooms by doctors practicing what one of them called “battlefield medicine.” The rioting was the costliest in U.S. history, with property losses exceeding $900 million -- $1.45 billion in today’s dollars. Thousands of businesses were burned or looted and 862 structures burned to the ground.

President George H.W. Bush was, as he put it, “sickened” by a televised clip of the King beating he had seen soon after the incident occurred a year earlier. In the midst of the rioting the president met with civil rights leaders and made a televised appeal for calm, promising that the Simi Valley verdicts were “not the end of the process.”

At Bush’s direction, Attorney General William Barr conferred with Justice Department officials to discuss prosecuting the officers on federal civil rights charges. William Kristol, then chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, later remembered discussing the case with Barr, who pushed forward despite initial reluctance. “Legally, it was a questionable thing to do, but they felt they had to do it for obvious reasons,” Kristol said.

As was true with Zimmerman, the first prosecution of the LAPD officers had also been problematic, although this was not widely known. Viewers worldwide shared President Bush’s reaction to an amateur cameraman’s videotaping of the beating, which showed officers brutally using their batons on King as he lay writhing on the ground.

Prosecutors knew, however, that this was not the full story. Among other things, the tape had been edited for clarity by the local television station that had first shown it, removing blurry footage in which King charged at one of the officers. The local station shared the tape with other stations and the networks, which mostly used the edited version without questioning it.

Prosecution problems were compounded by dubious judicial decisions. With Los Angeles seething with racial unrest and the mayor and police chief not on speaking terms, an appellate judge decided to grant a change of trial venue to the defense even though this flew in the face California precedents. The judge told me she wanted to move the case out of the hothouse political arena of Los Angeles. But the lower court judge who made the actual decision on where to hold the trial ignored part of the appellate order. Instead of moving the trial to a neutral faraway venue such as Sacramento, the judge decided to hold it in neighboring Ventura County. He pushed it even closer to Los Angeles by choosing a courthouse in Simi Valley, within driving distance of his home.

Simi Valley, a bedroom community popular with police officers, is part of the Los Angeles media market. The jury pool contained a handful of African-Americans, who took themselves off the jury or were excused for cause without the defense having to expend any of its challenges. The result was a jury without any African-Americans, in contrast to the mixed-race jury that would have been probable if the case had been tried in Los Angeles or Sacramento.

Prosecutors were apprehensive about trying the case in Simi Valley but concealed their feelings because they didn’t want to imply that jurors there might be racist. But their case went badly from the start. In his opening statement, the lead prosecutor played the unedited videotape of the beating, so he could explain it before the defense did. I was covering the trial for The Washington Post and was only a few feet from the juror who became the forewoman. She was clearly aghast when the unedited tape showed King charging at an officer, information she was learning for the first time.

Uncontested testimony at the trial also showed that the officers had tried to arrest King without striking him. King, who had taken up weight lifting while in prison on a robbery conviction, was large and strong. He had thrown the four officers who were trying to handcuff him off his back. The sergeant who was directing the arrest then fired two Taser charges at King. He staggered and went down, then climbed back to his feet. The officers were convinced King was under the influence of PCP. All this happened before the taping -- and the beating of King -- began.

Much else went well for the defense and badly for the prosecution in the course of the trial. King, who had been pursued over freeways and city streets at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour and was admittedly intoxicated, did not testify. Jurors in their deliberations were unsympathetic to him. In their own lives, they pulled over if a police car with flashing lights came up behind them. They could not understand why King, a felon who risked being sent back to prison if he violated his probation, had not stopped and instead led police on a long chase.

It was a different story at the second federal trial, held in Los Angeles in 1993. A high-powered prosecution team, determined to get convictions, had carefully reviewed the holes in the case that were exposed at Simi Valley. King, well groomed and passionate, testified effectively. The arresting sergeant, who had been eloquent on the witness stand at Simi Valley, was less impressive the second time around.

But the decisive difference at the second trial was the fear of jurors that failure to convict at least some of the officers might provoke another riot. Fear was the 13th juror. As in the Zimmerman trial but not in Simi Valley, the jurors in the federal trial of the officers were sequestered. The foreman had a commanding view of South Central Los Angeles from his 10th-floor room in a downtown hotel. Each night he would look out on the vast area of the riots and the next day tell fellow jurors he had not seen the city burning.

The foreman, a Vietnam veteran, considered this remark gallows humor and believed he stood up well to stress. Even so, he worried about the safety of his family and wondered whether people would find out where he lived and throw rocks at his home after the trial. When jurors would return to their hotel each afternoon, marshals would block off the sidewalk with a tent. Once, a pedestrian who had failed to heed a marshal’s instructions was pinned to the ground. Another afternoon, marshals learned of a bomb scare at the hotel. The van carrying the jurors returned to the court building while an excitable male juror screamed, “We’re going to die, we’re going to die.”

This would have been an intolerable strain for almost any jury. One juror, an African-American from Watts, acknowledged after the trial that he was afraid there would be new riots if the defendants were acquitted. Even so, the jury at first voted 7-5 to acquit all the officers. After deliberations, it convicted Laurence Powell, the officer who had struck the most blows, and the supervising sergeant, Stacey Koon, while acquitting the other two officers. I interviewed several jurors after the trial and believe that they did their best under highly adverse circumstances. But the context of the trial stacked the deck against the defendants.

It may be true, however, that the convictions in the federal trial forestalled another riot. The trial also produced an ironic contribution in federal sentencing procedures. U.S. District Judge John Davies, so even-handed in his conduct of the trial that Koon wrote him a note of thanks, sentenced the officers to 30 months in prison. Prosecutors, who wanted longer sentences, appealed. But Stephen Reinhardt, then and now the most liberal member of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld the sentences; a subsequent decision written by Antonin Scalia, the most conservative Supreme Court justice, loosened strict sentencing guidelines.

Koon, guilty or not, was no racist. When it was suggested to him that the chief beneficiaries of his sentencing appeal would be black criminal defendants, he said, “That’s fine with me.”

Twenty years later these conflicting legacies linger along with the many might-have-beens. If the original trial had not been moved to Simi Valley, there may have been convictions -- and no riots. If the second trial rather than the first had been moved out of Los Angeles, there might not have been convictions the second time around. It’s impossible to know. But another trial of George Zimmerman because authorities did not like the result of the first would be playing with fire. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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