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Testimony of King could be crucial in officers' trial, legal experts say


LOS ANGELES -- Today, more than two years after the world watched his videotaped beating by police, Rodney King was expected to testify publicly about the beating for the first time.

Defense attorneys yesterday sought to downplay the legal significance of Mr. King's long-awaited appearance in the federal civil rights trial of the four officers charged in his beating. But legal experts say the testimony, missing from the officers' state trial last year, could be key in this trial.

"Here's the victim," said Tom Beck, an attorney specializing in police misconduct cases. "He will humanize the testimony and add humanity to the film."

But Mr. King carries with him baggage, and the decision to call him was a dicey one for prosecutors. Defense attorneys are expected to focus on contradictory statements he has made since the beating about whether the officers hurled racial epithets in addition to baton blows. They also likely will zero in on the car chase that led to the beating and the criminal history of an armed robbery conviction that prompted Mr. King to flee the police.

And they might try to make him mad.

"If they can make him look like an aggressive fighter . . . it could be a turning point in the trial," said Jerome Skolnick, a professor at the Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Skolnick recently co-wrote a book, "Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force."

"If he loses his cool and glares or makes movements that are seen to be menacing, it's going to help the defense," he said.

The state prosecution was widely criticized for not calling Mr. King to the stand in its trial last year. Some observers cited the omission as crucial to the officers' acquittals, which sparked the worst U.S. rioting of the century.

Deputy District Attorney Terry White, the chief prosecutor in the state case, has declined to discuss in detail the decision not to call Mr. King. But in an interview last year just as the city started to burn, he said: "We felt it was best not to have Mr. King on the stand for a week to two weeks, being brutalized by defense attorneys. We felt the focus of the case should be on the conduct of the officers and not Mr. King."

Certainly, federal prosecutors made that point in opening statements to the jury in the current case. "Remember that Rodney King is not on trial," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Clymer said. "The issue is whether the officers are guilty or innocent." Mr. Clymer went on to suggest that Mr. King will testify he'd been drinking that night; he resisted arrest, initially; that "because of the beating, he has a very poor memory . . . [but] he didn't kick a police officer, he didn't grab a police officer, he didn't injure a police officer."

Most observers agree that given the failure of the state case, federal prosecutors had no choice but to call Mr. King to testify, baggage and all. In last year's Simi Valley trial, defense attorneys repeatedly depicted him as a monster, a being of supernatural strength like some creature out of a science fiction movie.

Mr. Skolnick argues that the videotape -- so central to the prosecution's case -- can be used to enhance the monstrous image. In an experiment, Mr. Skolnick videotaped President Clinton's State of the Union speech and played it back in slow motion, as the King tape has been played for jurors. "He (Clinton) begins to have a Frankenstein image," Mr. Skolnick said. ". . . He's transformed. He becomes monstrous looking."

Dispelling that frightening imagery is the prosecution's most important bonus to calling King, several experts say.

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