The Denny Trial: L.A.'S Next Big Test

Videotaped from a news helicopter hovering just overhead, the beating of white truckdriver Reginald Denny last April 29 remains the single most searing image of the riots that swept through Los Angeles that day. This tape, almost as familiar as that of Rodney King's beating, is a disturbing reminder that there were no good guys in the L.A. riots, and it is proof to many whites that the real issue is the mindless violence of the urban underclass. The two beating cases stand like twin monuments to the continuing dilemma of race hatred in America. And if the King case has now been resolved as far as the courts will allow, all Los Angeles is aware that the Denny case poses another bitter test of the principle of equal justice.

The trial of three young black men for Denny's beating, scheduled for last week, has been postponed until mid-July to allow defense attorneys more time to prepare their case. That's good news for the city and its residents since the Denny case has become nearly as polarizing as the King case itself. Last December a rally in support of the defendants turned into a mini-riot between police and black-community activists, and some observers worry that the upcoming trial could trigger new disturbances. The defendants are Damian Williams, 20, Henry Watson, 28, and Antoine Miller, 21, all of whom face possible life sentences on various felony charges, and all of whom are being held in jail because of their inability to post bail. (A fourth defendant, Gary Williams, 34, has pleaded guilty to robbery and assault charges and was sentenced to three years in prison.)

Despite the crushing burden of the videotaped evidence against them, the defendants have become a cause celebre. That's because many black-and some white-Angelenos see the handling of the Denny case as strikingly more severe than the prosecution of the four cops charged in the beating of Rodney King. The cops, the critics say, faced only assault and civilrights charges, and all four were released on relatively low bail before their trials in state and federal court. But Williams, Watson and Miller got high bail and heavy charges for a seemingly similar crime. All have been charged with attempted murder, and Damian Williams, who is allegedly the man videotaped hitting Denny in the head with a brick, has also been charged with aggravated mayhem. Williams's lawyer, Edi M.O. Faal, says he will compare the case against his client to the Rodney King case in order to prove that the L.A. district attorney's office is following racially discriminatory prosecution policies.

This long-shot tactic is equivalent to putting the criminal-justice system itself on trial-which is exactly what many black Angelenos would like to see. "Of course it's a case of unequal justice," says Leon Watkins, director of a family-crisis hot line in South-Central L.A. "The bail was so high for the Denny suspects." Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor, says the bail and charges were reasonable. But "given that we live in a racist society," Arenella says, "it should come as no surprise that people would see differential treatment."

But the Denny case has troubling aspects all its own. One is the fact that prosecutors forced the removal of a black judge in favor of a white judge. Another is the fact that the LAPD at first claimed three defendants were gang members--which could lead to additional prison time--but later dropped the charges when one of the investigating officers turned out to be facing disciplinary action.

And finally, there are large questions about two men who initially represented Damian Williams. One of them, attorney Dennis Palmieri, has admitted to a reporter he has been diagnosed as mentally ill. The other, Frederick Celani, is an ex-convict who is currently in jail on fraud charges--but who now says he was ordered by Washington to sabotage Williams's defense. Wild though this story may be, Palmieri made no objection when a highly incriminating videotaped statement by Williams was introduced in evidence during a hearing.

The best hope now is that a trial can be averted with negotiated pleas. Otherwise, the Denny case may well be Act II in L.A.'s urban drama.