On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was the driver of a
car in Los Angeles, California, and Bryant Allen was a passenger
in the back seat. The driver didn't stop when signaled by a
police car behind him, but increased his speed. One estimate
said that King drove at 100 miles per hour for 7.8 miles. When police finally stopped the car, they delivered
56 baton blows and six kicks to King, in a period of two
minutes, producing 11 skull fractures, brain damage, and kidney
A man named George Holliday, standing on the
balcony of a nearby building, videotaped the incident. The next
day (March 4), he gave his 81-second tape to Los Angeles TV
channel 5. By the end of the day, the video was being broadcast
by TV stations worldwide.
Unaware that the incident had been videotaped, the
police officers filed inaccurate reports, not mentioning the
fact that Rodney King was left with head wounds.
On March 15, 1991, four police officers were
arraigned on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and use of
excessive force. The four police officers who were charged were
Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, Ofc. Laurence M. Powell (Larry Powell), Ofc.
Theodore Briseno, and Ofc. Timothy Wind. On March 26, they
pleaded not guilty.
On a defense motion, the trial of the police
officers was relocated from Los Angeles to the suburb of Simi
Valley, in Ventura County, despite objections by the prosecution
that the two communities have "different demographics." The jury
was selected from a neighborhood in which many people have
friends or family members who are police officers, but the
likelihood of pro-police bias was not viewed by the court as a
form of prejudice to justify dismissing prospective jurors.
Almost a year passed between indictment and the
start of the trial. Testimony began March 5, 1992. On April 29, the jury acquitted the four
Summary : Four white police officers had been
acquitted by a white jury selected from the suburbs of
assaulting a black man in the city.
Thousands of people in South Central Los Angeles
responded to the verdict with several days of rioting. The
violence spread to other parts of Los Angeles County. Federal
troops and the California National Guard were mobilized to quell
the riots. In six days of rioting, 54 people were killed, 2,383
were known to have been injured, and 13,212 people were
arrested. There was an estimated $700 million in property damage
in Los Angeles County.
The first person to be arrested in Los Angeles (on
April 30, the second night of rioting) was Donald Coleman,
accused of throwing a molotov cocktail into a 7-Eleven store.
(He was convicted later in 1992, and sentenced to 19 years and 8
months in prison.) The rioting spread to a lesser extent to several
other cities. 300 people were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia.
On May 2, the U.S. Justice Department announced
that a federal grand jury had been empaneled to investigate
civil rights violations by the four police officers.
Reuters news bulletin : "June 26, 1992 - Amnesty
International accuses Los Angeles police of widespread use of
excessive force, sometimes amounting to torture." The officers were arraigned on federal charges on
August 5, 1992. On April 17, two of the four defendants were
TESTIMONY DURING THE FIRST TRIAL
Koon was the officer in the role of supervisor of
the other officers. Powell was the officer who hit King most of
the time. Attorney Darryl Mounger defended Koon, and attorney
Michael Stone defended Powell. In the first trial, the lawyers
for the prosecution were Terry White and Alan Yochelson.
On the witness stand, Koon and Powell explained
that they beat Rodney King because he failed to follow
instructions. Specifically, although King did lie face-down on
the ground, as the officers instructed him to, he ignored their
orders to keep his arms straight out to the sides. He had his
elbows bent, with his hands closer to his shoulders. Police
described this as "a push-up position" and interpreted it as an
indication that King was preparing to try to get up off the
ground. Therefore, Koon and Powell insisted, they were not
permitted by the rule book to handcuff King at that time; they
were required by regulations to continue to beat King with their
batons, and shock him with the taser, until such time as his
arms would be straight, and only then, handcuff him.
The number of police on the scene when Rodney King
was beaten included 21 officers from the Los Angeles Police
Department (LAPD) and 4 officers from the California Highway
Patrol. With 25 officers present, it would have been feasible to
handcuff King at any time. Nevertheless, Koon and Powell
testified, formal police procedures forbade them to handcuff the
suspect until he complied with their orders to straighten his
On the witness stand, Koon said Rodney King was "an
aggressive, combative suspect." In an allusion to the huge comic
book character, the Hulk, Koon called King a "monster" with
"Hulk-like strength." Koon said his actions were based in part
on his assumption that King was "probably an ex-con" and
"probably on PCP." (PCP is the psychoactive drug phencyclidine.)
Koon said King did not respond to the first
application of the taser, a police weapon which delivers painful
electric shocks. A second application of the taser, Koon said,
caused King to "groan like a wild animal."
Briseno testified that King was lying on the
ground, and not trying to get up, when the other officers
continued to beat and kick him. When asked under oath whether
King "never tried to get up," Briseno replied, "That's correct."
Briseno was asked why he can be seen pushing Powell away from
King, at a particular point in the video. Briseno explained : "I
didn't see Mr. King moving, and I thought Officer Powell was out
of control." He elaborated, "I just couldn't understand why they
were continuing what I saw there was no reason for."
Police officer Melanie Singer of the California
Highway Patrol had driven the patrol car that chased King's car.
She was the first officer to instruct King to move away from the
vehicle and to assume a prone position on the ground. However,
the other officers then took over. Later in court, Singer
testified that King at first danced around jokingly, wiggling
his buttocks, but eventually followed police instructions to lie
face-down on the ground. She described in vivid terms how the
baton blows "split open King's face" and "blood poured out,"
while King "screamed." She said the other officers used the
baton with "power strokes" (motions similar the swinging of a
baseball bat.) She testified that it was her opinion that
excessive police force was used.
Bryant Allen, the back seat passenger in King's
car, testified that he and King had each purchased and consumed
one liter bottle of beer before King offered to give Allen a
ride. He said that, after he heard the police sirens behind
them, he said, "Rodney, you better pull over. It's the police,"
but King didn't reply or show any other indication of having
The maker of the video tape, George Holliday,
testified that on March 3, 1991, at approximately 12 : 45 AM, he
was awakened by the sounds of police sirens and a helicopter. He
removed his video camera from a tripod and then took the camera
with him to his balcony. He made the recording of the incident,
and later gave the tape to TV channel 5.
THE SECOND TRIAL AND THE CONCLUSION
On August 4, 1992, the four officers were indicted
by a federal grand jury. In the second trial, the officers were
accused of violating the civil rights of Rodney King.
September 12, 1992 -- Racists and anti-racists
faced off at demonstration at the court house in Simi Valley,
California. Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups had travelled from
Mississippi and other states. They were faced by
counter-demonstrators, who included civil rights activists,
labor, greens, feminists and socialists.
October, 1992 -- Stacey Koon told his side of the
story in his book, Presumed Guilty : The Tragedy of the
Rodney King Affair.
February 3, 1993 -- Jury selection began in the
second trial of the four police officers. Opening statements
began February 25. Koon was the only one of the four defendants to
take the stand in the second trial.
On March 9, 1993, Rodney King, who never testified
during the first trial, took the witness stand (King's legal
counsel was Milton Grimes.) King admitted that, on March 3,
1991, he had been driving after drinking a bottle of beer.
On April 10 the jury began deliberating.
April 17 -- the day of the verdict. Koon and Powell
were found guilty; Briseno and Wind were acquitted.
6,500 police officers had been mobilized in Los
Angeles, and police snipers were placed on rooftops, in
preparation for another riot. A riot did not occur.
Acquitted : Officer Theodore Briseno, 40, married
with two children, had been with the LAPD for 11 years.
Acquitted : Officer Timothy Wind, 32, married with
one child, had been with the LAPD since 1990, and had been a
military police officer from 1983 to 1989.
Convicted : Sergeant Stacey Koon, 42, married with
five children, had been a member of the police department for 16
years. He has a master's degrees in criminal justice from
California State University and a master's degree in public
administration from the University of Southern California.
Convicted : Officer Laurence Powell, 30, single,
had been a full-time police office since 1987, after two years
as a reserve officer. He is a graduate of California State
Reuters news, April 17, 1993 - "Harland Braun,
Briseno's attorney, told reporters his client wept after the
verdict. 'Now he's just going to go home and cry,' Braun said."
Reuters news, April 17 - "Community leader Danny
Bakewell, of the Brotherhood Crusade, called the verdict
'absolutely fantastic, wonderful.' -- 'This was payback for a
lot of people who have been beaten on the streets when there was
no camera present,' he said."
Reuters, April 17 - "'I have to believe the jurors
were pressured into finding a guilty verdict with the specter of
riot violence looming in the background,' said Phil Caruso, head
of the Police Benevolent Association, New York City's police
Reuters, April 19 - "Koon, who gave an exclusive
interview to the syndicated tabloid television show, 'A Current
Affair,' said that he felt no animosity over the trial or the
verdicts. 'I'm not here to bad-mouth the system. I'm not here to
bad-mouth the jurors' ... 'The jurors in this particular case
were under a tremendous amount of pressure,' he added. 'This was
a very high-profile case.'"
Reuters, April 19 - "Two jurors, interviewed on ABC
and NBC morning talk shows, said the potential for riots did not
influence them. 'Absolutely not. It did not,' said one anonymous
juror on ABC's Good Morning America programme. A second unnamed
juror, interviewed on NBC's Today Show, agreed. Both said they
were influenced far more by the videotape of the beating, which
was taken by an amateur photographer and showed officers raining
more than 50 baton blows on King, as well as kicking and
Reuters, April 19 - "A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll
found the majority of blacks surveyed, 55 per cent, thought two
convictions were not enough, while only 21 per cent of whites
felt the same."
In July, 1993, a black man named Damian Williams
was tried for beating a white man named Reginald Denny during
the Los Angeles riot on April 29, 1992. The judge sentenced
Damian Williams to the maximum allowed by law, 10 years in
Koon and Powell were sent to the Federal Prison
Camp at Dublin, California. The prison is one often used to
house so-called white-collar criminals (e.g., Wall Street tycoon
Michael Milken spent two years there). The prison is nicknamed
"Club Fed" because it is "a prison without walls, fences, bars,
gun towers or guns", and escapees are called "walkaways."
Prisoners eat in a dining room with a salad bar, and are
provided recreational facilities, including video rentals,
gardening, a asphalt jogging track, a sand volleyball court, and
a weightlifting room. (From the Los Angeles Times, October 13,
1993) Controversy was raised when this facility was compared to
California's other prisons, which have "death fences" designed
to electrocute escapees. (Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1993).
When Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell were released,
they began new careers unrelated to law enforcement.