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Tempers Flared, Emotions Ran High for King Jury : Courts: Jurors describe weeklong deliberations, including explosive argument that provided a catharsis.

April 23, 1993|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trouble brewed before jurors got to court on the fifth and most cathartic day of deliberations in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial.

During breakfast at the Hilton Hotel where they were sequestered, jurors argued over taking time off. Some were mentally drained and for the previous two days had forced talks to conclude early. Juror No. 8 did not like the trend.

"If anybody wants a day off," she said, "I'm going to write the judge."

"Don't write the judge," the foreman said.

"I'll write him if I want to."

"Asshole!" the foreman shouted.

Later, in the jury room at the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, the foreman refused to apologize. With that, civility went out the door. Juror after juror vented grievances about colleagues in a scene that left about half of the panelists in tears.

After several hours of emotional bloodletting, Juror No. 3 couldn't take any more and demanded to see his doctor.

Nothing was accomplished that Wednesday. "But ironically, it settled everybody down," said Juror No. 6.

At 12:30 p.m. the next day, they convicted Laurence M. Powell, one of the four officers accused of violating King's civil rights. By Friday their work was done--Sgt. Stacey C. Koon was guilty; Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno were not.

The Times interviewed three jurors for this article, each of whom demanded that his identity be kept secret.

They told of their 52 days with a group of eight men and four women who started out as strangers. Some were professionals, some tradespeople, at least one unemployed, drawn from Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

They lived together in a block of single rooms on the Hilton's 10th floor, ate together, and in some cases, exercised, played cards and prayed together. But in most instances they did not even know one another's last names.

To preserve their privacy and keep them safe and free from public pressure, and to make sure they did not discuss the case before it was time to deliberate, they lived under the guard of U.S. marshals.

To the dismay of some, the marshals had a rule requiring sobriety. Jurors were limited to two drinks a night.

Marshals listened to all telephone conversations and observed family visits. Even the remote control for the communal television was always in a marshal's hand. Jurors were supposed to be in a news blackout about the trial, and whenever the marshals so much as heard the words civil rights, they thought it would be prudent to switch channels first, ask questions later.

The jurors' names were literally a state secret. Jurors were referred to publicly only by their seat numbers in the jury box, although they were told they could tell one another first names or nicknames.

The jurors interviewed by The Times were No. 6, a 30-year-old engineer who took voluminous notes; No. 9, a 35-year-old jeweler who colleagues said has an excellent memory, and No. 11, a welder in his 60s who kept a diary.

Here is their story:

SATURDAY, APRIL 10

At midafternoon, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies sent them into a room next to his courtroom to decide the case. They had a refrigerator and coffeepot and another room full of exhibits admitted into evidence during the trial. These included the metal baton that Powell used to strike King after a March 3, 1991, traffic stop.

"We didn't know how to start," Juror No. 9 said. "We hadn't been allowed to talk about the case at all."

Everyone started talking at once, and it quickly became clear a plan of organization was needed.

Juror No. 5, a male engineer about 40 years old, was elected foreman in a secret ballot. He beat out No. 8, the female insurance company executive with whom he would later clash. The vote, which most recall as 8 to 4, was apparently along gender lines.

Jurors decided they would raise their hands to ask permission to speak and ended their first day with little or no substantive debate.

EASTER SUNDAY, APRIL 11

Five jurors went to church, so deliberations did not start until about 1 p.m.

Jurors sent a note to Judge Davies, asking him to provide them with a transcript of the testimony of CHP Officer Melanie Singer.

The request, which was denied by Davies, set off a round of public speculation that the jurors wanted Singer's testimony to assess what a "reasonable officer" thought of Powell's actions.

Davies had instructed them to put themselves in the place of a "reasonable officer."

Singer had cried on the witness stand when she described Powell's clubbing of King, so the jury's request for a copy of her testimony was interpreted as being very bad news for the defense.

But jurors had something more mundane in mind. Singer had been involved in the car chase that led to the beating, and jurors had decided to start their review of the evidence at the beginning--with the chase.

They were still just getting organized, trying to determine whether King had in fact been evading police. They thought that would be important in establishing whether the officers had reason to be afraid of him.

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