One-Sided View of The King Trial

Saturday, February 14, 1998; Page A27

As one who helped supervise the Justice Department's 1992 prosecution of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, I have to object to the incomplete and one-sided account presented in the extensive excerpts from Lou Cannon's book on that case ["The King Incident: More Than Met the Eye on Videotape," front page, Jan. 25].

The Cannon piece fails to mention that after a trial lasting over a month, guided by a judge who bent over backward to ensure the officer-defendants were treated fairly every step of the way, a multiracial federal jury in California evaluated mountains of evidence and argument amassed by both sides and concluded that two of the four officers charged were guilty of an unlawful abuse of power. Three appellate judges could find no legal error, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to disturb the convictions.

Against this backdrop, the Cannon excerpts strain to explain or at least suggest excuses for the police beating, but do so without even referring to many of the facts the jury found persuasive. The excerpts, for example, dwell on the omission of three blurry seconds of the tape as shown on the national media, but neglect to mention that the entire footage, enhanced to the maximum by the FBI, was available to the federal jurors. What the jury likely found most persuasive was the fact that even though there may have been an initial justification for some use of force, the beating continued gratuitously long after King had been subdued. Citing the curious theories of defense "expert" Charles Duke, the fragments from the book even repeat the absurd defense that the LAPD was at fault for failing to train its officers not to beat arrestees. The excerpts fail to mention that Mark Conta, an experienced street cop who was the LAPD's ranking expert on the use of force, explained how the continued beating of King was absolutely forbidden by his department's policy.

One could go on and on, but the point is that such an incomplete account of a high-visibility case is misleading and undermines the public appreciation of the justice system. The rule of law worked in the Rodney King case, and the Cannon excerpts stir up unnecessary and useless tensions. It is tempting to dismiss all this as the product of an unfortunate selection of excerpts from the book, but a quick glance indicates that the book's whole account of the federal trial may be similarly flawed.

-- James P. Turner

The writer is former deputy assistant attorney general, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to James P. Turner's page

Back to Turners Homepage