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CASE HISTORY : The Strategy, the Fights, the Setbacks--How Four Angry Men Tackled the Most Explosive Criminal Trial in Modern History

June 27, 1993|JIM NEWTON | Times staff writer Jim Newton, who reports on the Los Angeles Police Department and federal law-enforcement agencies, covered the federal trial of the officers in the King case.

WHEN THE RODNEY G. KING CIVIL RIGHTS TRIAL FINALLY ended on April 17, when the guilty verdicts were in and months of mounting tension melted away outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, the four prosecutors stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the world's media for the first and only time. There was no disguising their relief: It showed in their exhausted eyes and in their barely suppressed smiles. But as their bosses lavished praise on the lawyers--U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers called them "one of the most formidable trial teams ever assembled"--the prosecutors soaked it up without expression, squinting in the bright television lights, hands folded behind their backs, waiting their turn. Then, after nearly a year of turning down every request to talk about one of the most explosive criminal trials of modern times, at last it was the prosecutors' chance to speak.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer stepped to the lectern, and it instantly became clear that even in victory the team was not about to shed its guarded impassivity. Clymer curtly turned back question after question about trial strategy. When he was asked about his reputation as the prosecution's "pit bull," he almost broke character, lowering his eyes and hinting at a smile. Then he caught himself. "I did the best job I could, sir," he answered. "That's all I can tell you."

Barry Kowalski, the other lead prosecutor, was a little more forthcoming. He grinned when a reporter reminded him that he had once referred to Clymer as his "significant other," and his voice quavered a bit when he described the significance of the verdicts. But Kowalski showed his steely side, too. "Were there moments where you stepped back and reflected on and felt some of the pressure of an entire country looking to this case for fairness in a symbolic sense?" one reporter asked.

"Of course there were," Kowalski answered crisply and then stepped away from the microphone without a word of elaboration.

No one should have been surprised. In the 11 months leading up to that morning, Clymer, Kowalski and the other two federal prosecutors--Lawrence S. Middleton and Alan W. Tieger--had always projected this same image of brusque invincibility, never conceding strategic defeats or gloating over victories, never responding to attacks by their adversaries, never tipping their hand. The public's only view of them came in court, where the government lawyers showed their skill but gave no hint about the inner workings of the prosecution.

Weeks later, away from the lights, awash in the congratulations that poured in from around the country, the four would finally agree to fill in the details. They would talk about the intensity of prosecuting the biggest case of their lives--about the singular focus that united them and the fierce debates that sometimes divided them. They would dissect the evidence they uncovered, the setbacks they encountered and the centerpiece of their case: the belief that the defendants, four LAPD officers, had lied. And finally, they would reveal that beneath their aggressive confidence, the team labored under the weight of obligation and, sometimes, the tug of fear.

"I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility," Clymer says. "From the day of the Simi Valley verdicts, this case raised the question of whether the criminal justice system works the same for black people as it does for white people."

Middleton, the youngest of the prosecutors and the only African-American, echoes that feeling. "Events in Los Angeles had left a large part of this city feeling like they didn't count, like they didn't have a place in the criminal justice system. I felt we had a chance to restore some faith."

Tieger and Kowalski, based in Washington, knew at once that this would be the biggest case they had ever prosecuted. Tieger remembers calling for a plane reservation to Los Angeles during the riot, only to find that flights were being rerouted--due to gunfire. "That drove the point home," he says.

"As I was packing and getting ready to go to Los Angeles," says Kowalski, "I remember thinking that it was very much like packing to go to Vietnam. I figured it was going to be about a year. And I figured I might be coming home either on my shield or carrying my shield."

APRIL 29, 1992, WAS A MILD SPRING DAY IN WASHINGTON. AT THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, most of the staff already had gone home by the time the jury meeting in Simi Valley completed its work. But on the fifth floor, four of the nation's top civil rights lawyers gathered in an office once occupied by J. Edgar Hoover to wait for the verdicts.

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