VAN NUYS — Some believed that justice was served. Others thought political pressure and simple fear played a part in the controversial outcome of the Reginald O. Denny beating trial.
Those varying opinions showed in the Van Nuys courthouse Wednesday as lawyers, just like others across Los Angeles, split in their reactions to the verdict.
On Wednesday, Damian Monroe Williams, 20, one of the two young black men on trial for the attack on truck driver Reginald O. Denny during riots sparked by the Rodney G. King verdict last year, was acquitted on an attempted murder charge.
Co-defendant Henry Keith Watson, 29, who was convicted of a misdemeanor assault for his part in the Denny beating, was released from Los Angeles County Central Jail today for the first time in nearly 1 1/2 years.
Like the jurors in the trial, half a dozen lawyers focused on the same point: the inability of prosecutors to prove that Williams and Watson intended to kill Denny, rather than acting on the same random impulse that burned across the city during the riot.
"The system works even when we on the outside don't like what happened," said Bruce Bunch, a Woodland Hills attorney who sat down to a grilled cheese sandwich and soda lunch in the cafeteria at the Municipal Court building.
"There's no way you can justify Rodney King getting the tar beat out of him or Reginald Denny getting hit over the head with a brick, but jurors don't work in a vacuum," Bunch said.
"They bring all of their experiences and perceptions with them."
In the Superior Court cafeteria next door, Encino family lawyer Dana Blatt said that he was mildly outraged by the verdict, but that he understood it in the context of the political climate and tension that has surrounded nearly two years of court cases stemming from the Rodney King beating.
"It seemed that a big issue was the identification of the defendants," he said.
"Once they figured out who did it, the tape speaks for itself, and it shows more than a simple assault," he said.
"I think the verdict was political and the jury acted out of fear," Blatt said.
Prosecutors, more than jurors, account for the outcome, said Jeff Slater, a Woodland Hills attorney. The district attorney's office overstated the charges brought against the two suspects, Slater said.
That, plus a solid case by defense attorney Edi M. O. Faal, added up to acquittal on the most serious charges the defendants faced. "They spent so much time trying to prove their identity they had no time to prove intent," Slater said.
Speaking as just another citizen who viewed Denny's beating on tape, Slater said: "I was convinced they would be convicted of battery and perhaps mayhem."
Philip Nameth, a supervising attorney for the Alternate Defense Counsel, a Van Nuys law firm that regularly provides court-appointed lawyers for indigent defendants, heaped praise on Faal, saying he quickly disabused prosecutors of the notion that they had a "slam-dunk" case.
Both Nameth and Aileen Goldstein, a Burbank lawyer, concluded that prosecutors failed to prove intent on the part of either defendant.
"They just overreached, but hey, I'm not a D. A., I don't stand in their shoes and I don't know what pressures they are under," Goldstein said.
Finally, Lea Purwin D'Agostino, a deputy district attorney in Van Nuys, said she and most of her colleagues were very disappointed by the verdicts, and cited the tremendous pressures placed on the jurors. Even defense attorneys seemed stunned by the verdicts, she said.
"Knowing what a potential verdict might trigger, you would have to be inhuman not to have that in your mind," D'Agostino said. "I don't think the verdict was supported by the evidence," she added.
More importantly, D'Agostino expressed concern that the acquittal may send the wrong message to those who would threaten public safety based on the outcome of a particularly sensitive trial.
"What I hope this does not do is send a message that it's perfectly permissible to go out and riot if people get a verdict they don't agree with."