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Jury gave endorsement of police brutality, law faculty say
STANFORD -- A Simi Valley, Calif., jury, with the help of a videotape, exposed often invisible weaknesses in America's system of justice, a Stanford Law School panel told about 100 students, faculty and staff on Friday, May 1.
The jury's rationale for acquitting four Los Angeles police officers of brutality charges against Rodney King, whose beating was recorded on videotape, has been explained by jurors in interviews since the April 29 verdicts. Their comments became the focus of the law school forum organized by the dean's office to allow law students and faculty to discuss how the verdict might affect American justice and their role in it.
As one white law student put it, "At first I thought the judge must have made an error in his technical instructions to the jury. But then I heard a jury member explain the verdict, and it was clear this wasn't a mistake. They swallowed the defense argument hook, line and sinker."
A black law student said the verdict reminded him of the way white people "cross the street" or "get out of elevators when I get on. I think that society today has been taught at all levels to be afraid of black men."
Prof. Gerald Gunther, a constitutional law expert, agreed that racism was "obviously operating" in the post-verdict comments of at least one jury member and in police radio recordings of the accused police officers. He said he also was troubled by juror comments that indicated the jury supported law and order at the expense of civil liberties.
The verdict - as well as strong public support for the recent execution of Robert Alton Harris, a white man - may reflect a growing sentiment for law and order at all costs, he said.
"This jury seemed unwilling to put any decent limits on police discretion, and I think that's the flat-out bottom line on this," Gunther said. "The beating that King took was not justified even on the assumption that he did not turn quiescent as soon as [police] stopped the car and even if they had a basis for using force in the first few blows."
Jury members' elaborations on the verdict "confirmed for me what I already knew existed out there," said Prof. Kim Taylor, a black attorney and the former director of the Public Defender Services of the District of Columbia.
Many prosecutors have become accustomed to benefiting from racial bias against minority defendants, she said, and those prosecuting the four police officers didn't demonstrate the skills that most defense lawyers demonstrate for exposing racism during questioning of potential jurors.
In contrast, she said, the police officers' defense team seemed to capitalize on the fact that the case was identified already in the minds of the public as the Rodney King case - not the Laurence Powell case. They took a suburban jury "predisposed to believe that police officers are our friends," and with "veiled racist arguments" convinced them the police officers were merely "protecting society from chaos," Taylor said.
"There were references made to Rodney King [in the trial] as though he were an animal. They made references that he 'groaned like a bear' - references that made people feel it was appropriate to say, 'it is us against this animal element, us against them, and we need protection from them.'
"I think we all should realize that it's very easy to be part of 'them' at any point."
Several law students asked if lawyers shouldn't be prevented from playing to the racial fears of a jury. Taylor defended the defense lawyers' right to use strategies that work on behalf of their clients. She urged her audience to think beyond proposals for reforms in the rules for jury selection or lawyer conduct to address what she said were the systemic problems of unequal justice.
"Many of you," she said, referring to white students in the audience, "can be heard in places that I cannot be heard because of the color of my skin. You have the responsibility to go in some places that I can't and say, 'this cannot happen and will not happen again.' "
She suggested that students working or interning this summer in private law firms convince those firms to let them lay the groundwork for local police review boards. She urged students going into public defenders' offices to "make a difference in the life" of every defendant whose case they work on, and she urged those going into prosecutors' offices to "speak out if you see injustices."
The Simi Valley verdict may mobilize those white Americans who were horrified by the seeming "normalness" with which the mostly white jury seemed to consider the police actions, said law Prof. Janet Halley.
They may be "particularly horrified and particularly mobilized because these utterances came out of the law itself," Halley said. "It was a jury - not just a golf party in Simi Valley - that said these things.
"Apparently to these jurors, who represent a certain kind of bland, vanilla America, it's normal to think that Rodney King was in charge of the episode when he was flat on his face on the cement," Halley said. "It's normal to think of that as a position of power in a black man, and it's also normal to think that the officers did what they had to do, what they had been trained to do and that they did it with the tools they had been given."
Law Prof. Miguel Mendez said that, as a Mexican American male, the verdict made him feel "less safe." In California, the chief targets of police who abuse their power are African American and Mexican American males, he said. However, increasing minority populations in some California counties have improved local systems of justice when people express their views in elections, he said. He urged the audience to press the issue of equal justice on all candidates for public office and make it a criterion for their voting decisions.
"One reason why it's so important for the Justice Department to bring a prosecution under federal civil rights law is to try to restore some sense that the judicial system is a place where racial justice can be found," law Prof. Janet Alexander said.
The ability of ethnic minorities to press their cases in courts, she said, may be the major difference between the histories of the United States and of South Africa over the last 50 years.
King will have a tougher time winning his civil damage lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles than the Justice Department would have winning a criminal prosecution under applicable federal laws, Gunther and Alexander said. The government will have to prove that the police officers had the intent to deprive King of his civil rights, which would be easier than proving the city had the intent, especially since the police officers' actions were so extreme, Alexander said.
King's civil lawsuit may recover damages from the officers, she said, "but the city is the one with money."
Gunther predicted a jury would find the officers guilty of criminal civil rights violations and said he doubted the U.S. Supreme Court would consider overturning such a verdict on appeal. The penalty for such a conviction can include fines and up to 10 years in prison for each count, he said.
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