Reginald Denny, Urban American Hero

WASHINGTON. — Washington. -- Sometimes one man of forgiveness, compassion and uncommon wisdom can bring more tranquility to a city or nation than a thousand policemen, or ten thousand National Guardsmen.

Occasionally, one victim of a horrible crime who chooses righteousness over revenge can redeem an entire criminal-justice system and pull millions of people out of a long, dark night of hatred and fear.


Such a man is Reginald O. Denny, the white truck driver we saw on television in April 1992 as he was beaten mercilessly by young Los Angeles blacks. Fate had put Mr. Denny and his truck in the midst of terrible rioting following the acquittal of four white police officers involved in the cruel beating of black motorist Rodney King.

Prosecutors were outraged by the Denny videotapes, as were most Americans. They "threw the book" at Damian Williams and Henry Watson, charging them collectively with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated mayhem, simple mayhem, simple assault and robbery. Los Angeles held its collective breath, fearing grave repercussions if Williams and Watson got life sentences whereas two white policemen convicted of violating King's civil rights -- Sgt. Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence M. Powell -- had received only 30-month prison sentences.


Every bar and barbershop in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles was filled with angry rhetoric about the fact that Koon and Powell had remained free during their trial while Watson and Williams had been jailed for a year and a half because they couldn't raise bail of $500,000 and $580,000, respectively. The talk in white neighborhoods and boardrooms was about whether a "mixed" jury of blacks, Asians, Hispanics and whites would "send a signal" that black criminals would be put away.

Here was another time bomb in a city that already had just experienced the nation's worst and costliest urban rioting in history.

But along came the healer Mr. Denny. After his testimony, he shocked the judge, jury and nation by suddenly embracing the mothers of the accused, Watson and Williams. Instead of inflaming the situation with a "victim impact" diatribe that would have escalated racial passions, Mr. Denny made this incredible, simple gesture of forgiveness.

Prosecutors must have known at that moment that they would have trouble proving Watson or Wilson guilty of premeditated attempted murder, because Mr. Denny was saying with two spontaneous embraces that he understood that the people who beat him almost to death were caught up in mob madness.

Mr. Denny took much of the poison of racism and other tensions out of the court procedures, probably because he knew that while blacks almost killed him, brave black people rescued him and, along with black doctors, saved his life.

Even as the judge ordered the deadlocked jury to deliberate further on whether to convict or acquit Williams on a charge of attempted murder, and Watson on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, Mr. Denny said on TV that he "agreed completely" with the jury in clearing Williams and Watson of the most serious felony charges. Mr. Denny had helped to deliver a measure of sanity to one of the craziest jury situations of our lifetime.

Under the guilty verdicts, Williams faced a maximum of 10 years in prison, while Watson faced six months. Mr. Denny said that Watson should go free, and also urged prosecutors not to seek new trials on the charges on which the jury was deadlocked.

His lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, called Mr. Denny "a very forgiving, remarkable individual." The former truck driver is that, and many lovely things more, in a society that is long on hate and very short on love.


Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.