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Rough and Tumble Trial in Court of Public Opinion : King case: Media feed off comments outside courtroom as officers and their attorneys try to shape perceptions.

March 15, 1993|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

There are two Rodney G. King civil rights trials taking place at the Edward R. Roybal federal courthouse.

One is being held in the stately eighth-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge John G. Davies. This proceeding is governed by exacting rules of evidence designed to prohibit the admission of information that is irrelevant, hearsay or likely to unfairly inflame the passions of the jury.

The other trial is a rough and tumble affair, a series of news conferences during breaks in the formal proceedings, some in the hallways of the Roybal building, most in the large plaza outside.

This trial--run by the media, the defense lawyers and their police officer clients--is not restrained by rules. It is punctuated by name-calling, dueling agendas and a bare modicum of civility. Last week, during King's testimony, there were about two dozen television cameras and more than 100 reporters jockeying for position as they waited for the appearance of defense lawyers.

The widely broadcast news conferences have become increasingly unruly, drawing a variety of non-media types who have heckled defense lawyers. After a sharp exchange between one of the lawyers and an activist on Thursday, yellow tape was stretched around the media area to keep the throngs at a safe distance.

The tenor of these free-for-alls has gotten downright nasty.

Sgt. Stacey C. Koon called the Los Angeles Police Department's use of force expert "a whore." Officer Laurence M. Powell launched his own torpedo. He said any portrayal of King as a symbol of injustice against blacks "is like saying Charles Manson is a symbol of justice in America."

On Thursday, the harangues continued. Officer Theodore J. Briseno's attorney said one of the federal prosecutors had "sold his soul" by allowing King to testify that officers had shouted "nigger" even though King later admitted that he was uncertain whether the highly charged word had been used.

Such out-of-court outbursts were mostly absent from the officers' first trial in Simi Valley. With the jurors in the state case free to go home each day, the judge ordered defense lawyers to confine their oratory to the courtroom after an initial flurry of news conferences. But the judge in the federal case would have little legal standing to impose a gag order because this time the jury is sequestered, meaning inflammatory remarks are less likely to sway the trial's outcome.

With tensions running so high around the case, there is considerable concern that the personal attacks could inflame emotions.

Prosecutor Barry Kowalski advanced that argument in asking Davies to clamp down on the defense lawyers and their clients after Koon's "whore" comment.

"Counsel in this case have got to be careful about what they say in public," Kowalski said. "In this case, in this city, at this time, counsel needs to take special care."

Davies said he heard the remarks on the radio and called them "inappropriate, if not defamatory." He urged the defense lawyers to be "circumspect."

But Briseno's lawyer, Harland W. Braun, said prosecutors should spend more time worrying about what he called the inflammatory impact of their tactics--such as encouraging King to testify about racial epithets that the four accused officers allegedly hurled at him.

Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press has covered major trials around the country for the past 25 years and has seen plenty of "spin lawyering" in her day. But the police officers' lawyers, she said, "are much more outspoken than in any other case I've covered."

She said she usually does not attend news conferences because her primary goal is to bring readers into the courtroom by reporting what the jurors are hearing. But Deutsch said last week she was forced to change her style.

"I finally wound up having to go outside and use some of the comments because they came up in the courtroom," she said.

The King case is hardly the first instance in which lawyers have waged war on the steps of a courthouse. USC law professor Susan Estrich said it is now "conventional wisdom" in legal circles that there is something to be gained by trying the case in the media as well as in the courtroom, especially in high-profile clashes such as this one.

The thinking is that a lawyer should never miss an opportunity--in or out of court--to create favorable opinion about a client while casting the prosecution as persecutors.

True or not, there is a wide perception in legal circles that auto maker John Z. DeLorean's acquittal on drug charges was partly the result of the daily news conferences held by his lawyers, Howard Weitzman and Donald Re, who succeeded in putting the government on the defensive.

To be sure, in the King case, most of the statements by the lawyers and officers have been relatively tame responses to questions about strategy, testimony and their impressions of the impact a witness might have made. But it is the zingers, the irresistible sound bites, that many believe are at the heart of the game.

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