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Law Professor Turns King Trial Interpreter : Analysis: Attending for scholarly reasons, she often is called upon to explain the nuances of courtroom action for the media. Her views tilt toward the prosecution's side, but she has also gained the admiration of defense lawyers.

March 27, 1993|HENRY WEINSTEIN and JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the moment jury selection began in the federal trial of four police officers charged with violating Rodney G. King's civil rights, there has been no shortage of self-styled analysts.

The defendants and their lawyers regularly interpret the day's events for the local and national media. Protesters often gather outside the courthouse to shout their views. Even a local rap star has appeared at the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building to mingle with reporters and explain why he believes three of the officers should be convicted and one acquitted.

But through the clamor of conflicting opinions, a local law professor has emerged as the most sought-after commentator in the nation. It is through her eyes that millions of newspaper readers, television viewers and radio listeners have gained insights into the high-profile case.

Laurie L. Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola University Law School, has attended the trial almost every day and has been quoted on both coasts and at least two continents. Her views--which admittedly tilt toward the prosecution's case but which have won her grudging admiration from some of the defense attorneys as well--have appeared in many newspapers and on all four major television networks and have made her a regular interviewee on National Public Radio.

Rare is the lunch break that does not find Levenson conducting an ad hoc seminar for reporters on the intricacies of cross-examination or the complexities of various constitutional rights. She patiently lectures on this principle or that, and she often speaks up for prosecutors in a case where they have chosen to withhold comment outside the courtroom.

Levenson's recent prominence has resulted largely from the fact that, unlike last year's state trial in Simi Valley, the federal case is not being telecast live, dramatically reducing the number of knowledgeable commentators. Because Levenson is the only legal scholar to regularly show up at the courthouse, she has forged a bond with reporters eager for a relatively objective analysis of the day's events.

The impact that Levenson's analysis may have on public opinion about the emotionally charged trial is not lost on her.

"I have a tremendous sense of the responsibility I have to report truthfully--not only to say what happened but to put it in its proper context," she said. "I'm sensitive that people out in the community are on edge."

Bright and unpretentious, Levenson, 36, is skilled at explaining complex topics in simple and terse language, which is not always a trademark of her profession. She said that even though she "sort of inserted myself into the limelight," becoming a media star is not her motive in attending the trial.

"Frankly, I have an interest in the case. It's a historical moment in the city," she said recently. "I have talked to the press when asked questions because I think it's important that the public receive a balanced view of what's occurring."

Levenson said she tries to offer objective critiques of the trial, but she adds that even when her views tend to favor the prosecution, this has the effect of balancing the overall coverage. After all, lawyers for the officers have hardly been shy about expressing their opinions.

"Although there can be times when I would agree with what the defense is saying," she said, "there are other times when they are spinning the case to help themselves."

Veteran CBS producer Michael Singer agreed. In the early stages of the trial, "the defense lawyers were . . . trying to spin every bit of the prosecution's case," he said. "It was disturbing that there was no voice coming from the other side."

But Levenson filled the void. "Laurie was available," Singer said. "She was down there. She was on top of the trial at any moment."

Levenson, whose legal analyses are rooted in common sense as well as legal scholarship, says she is not paid for her interviews and would be coming to court even if no one asked her opinion about the case.

"From a scholarship point of view," she said, "there's only so much you can learn from a book. The rest you have to learn by being there, seeing."

Faced with limited public seating for the trial, Levenson has hustled her access however she can. Most days she gets in with a pass borrowed from National Public Radio--part of her arrangement to do weekly interviews with the radio network--but occasionally she lines up with the public, sometimes as early as 7:30 a.m.

When she can't get in, she often uses her NPR credential to listen from the press room, where she has warmed her own welcome by showing up on several days with pastries for the dozens of journalists gathered there.

Loyola's proximity to the courthouse and a flexible schedule--including some night teaching-- have made it easier for her than for other potential commentators to attend the trial. "A lot of legal experts could do what I'm doing, but they don't have the flexibility I do," said Levenson, who has child care for her daughter and son.

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