SIMI VALLEY — Four Los Angeles police officers won acquittals Wednesday in their trial for the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King, igniting renewed outrage over a racially charged case that had triggered a national debate on police brutality.
Hours after the verdicts were announced, angry demonstrators torched buildings, looted stores and assaulted passersby as civic leaders pleaded for calm. Gov. Pete Wilson deployed the National Guard at the request of Mayor Tom Bradley, who warned residents to "stay off the streets."
Bradley, in a late-night televised address to the city, said a curfew may be imposed tonight if the violence continues.
Wilson's decision to send in the National Guard came after rioters touched off more than 150 fires, stormed police headquarters and trashed numerous downtown buildings. Sporadic gunfire flared in the streets, and heavy smoke rising from the fires forced the authorities to reroute landing patterns for aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport.
By late Wednesday night, authorities had linked four deaths and 106 injuries to the violence. Some people were pulled from their cars and beaten.
It was the largest rioting to erupt in Los Angeles since the Watts riots of 1965.
Acquitted were Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind. Jurors apparently were not convinced that a videotape of the March 3, 1991, beating of King represented the entire story. One juror said that King, by being combative and ignoring the officers' orders, brought the beating upon himself.
The 81-second video, filmed by an amateur, showed officers delivering repeated baton blows and kicks as King rolled on the ground. Its images have been seared into the minds of viewers the world over who have watched the tape broadcast repeatedly.
A visibly angry Bradley said he was left "speechless" by the "senseless" verdicts and urged the city to refrain from violence.
"The jury's verdict will never blind the world to what we saw on the videotape," Bradley said.
The not guilty verdicts by a Ventura County Superior Court jury--which included no blacks--were reached after seven days of deliberations. For three days, the jury forewoman said, the panel focused exclusively on a single count of assault against one of the officers. With the jury unable to reach a consensus, a mistrial was declared on that count by Judge Stanley M. Weisberg.
Except for the single deadlocked count, all four defendants, who are white, were acquitted on all counts. The unresolved count is an assault charge against Powell; prosecutors will announce May 15 whether they will retry the officer.
Upon hearing the verdicts, Briseno--who had testified that he believed his fellow officers were "out of control" when they beat and stomped King--leaped to his feet and hugged his attorney. Powell and his attorney, Michael Stone, hugged each other.
"I'm very happy," Powell told reporters. "But it's hard to be surprised. I felt all along that I was innocent. Now I know I'm innocent."
Attorney Darryl Mounger, who defended Koon, said he believed the verdict turned on "truth."
"He (Koon) wasn't doing anything but making an arrest."
Mounger added that the trial represented a "no-win" situation for all concerned. "Nobody wins," he said. "These officers have been punished enough. Rodney King got out of jail, where he should be, and instead he's going to win a million dollars (in a civil lawsuit)."
As Koon left the courthouse, angry bystanders shouted "Guilty!" and scuffled briefly with sheriff's deputies flanking the sergeant. Powell was greeted by a similar crowd that hurled rocks at him as he left.
The prosecutors, who had stared silently at their table during the reading of the verdicts, hung their heads and marched out of the courtroom.
"My reaction is shock first, then disappointment," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry White, the lead prosecutor in the case. "Obviously we feel the evidence warranted a conviction of the defendants and the jury disagreed with us."
The defense strategy turned on persuading the jury that King was a combative suspect who did not comply with officers' orders. Evidently, it worked.
"He refused to get out of the car," said one juror who was interviewed by The Times. "His two companions got out of the car and complied with all the orders and he just continued to fight. So the Police Department had no alternative. He was obviously a dangerous person. . . . Mr. King was controlling the whole show with his actions."
Extraordinary secrecy measures surrounded the jury, which was sequestered throughout its deliberations. Members refused to talk to reporters after the verdicts were read in a packed, silent courtroom at the East County Courthouse.
"This experience has been an extremely difficult and stressful one, one that we have all agonized over a great deal," said a statement prepared by the jury forewoman, a 64-year-old military contracts manager. "We feel we have done the best job we could have done."