Disorder In The Court

AFTER TWO JUDICIAL ROUNDS OF Rodney King, Los Angeles thought it had seen it all. But last week the criminal-justice system was once again unnerved by a trial that seemed in chaos. Inside room 9-304J of the Criminal Courts Building, where a jury was deciding the fate of two black men accused of beating Reginald Denny during the 1992 race riots, there was enough tumult to make "Twelve Angry Men" look like an Amish softball game. One black juror, number 373, infuriated her colleagues so much that they persuaded the judge to remove her. "She cannot comprehend anything," they wrote. Three days later the judge refused to dismiss a white juror, number 104, who was accused by the others of running down a hotel hallway yelling, "I can't take it anymore!" She told the judge, "I just didn't feel I was getting enough...you know, visitation with my boyfriend." All these high jinks weren't just entertainment for those watching Court TV. They raise serious questions about whether the judge erred in not declaring a mistrial in the politically charged case and whether any conviction of the two defendants will ultimately be thrown out.

No one knows exactly what has happened during the Denny deliberations. At the weekend, jurors announced they had reached verdicts on some counts, but remained undecided on some of the most serious charges. The whirligig of juror challenges, dismissals and replacements has turned an attempted-murder trial into a test of the jury system itself. judge John Ouderkirk--a no-nonsense, conservative former prosecutor who rarely is overturned on appeal--had hoped to avoid precisely this scenario. The jury is racially diverse. Unlike the mostly white jury in the first King trial, this panel consists of blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in addition to whites. Yet black leaders like Leo Terrell, a lawyer for the NAACP, are crying foul again. The system didn't do right by Rodney King, they say, and now it's being unfair to two more black men because of the revolving door of jurors. Despite Ouderkirk's record, legal experts predict that guilty verdicts might not withstand appeal because it looks as though he is stacking the jury. His dismissal of juror 373 for the vaguely stated reason of "failing to deliberate" is unheard of. juror 373's "behavior must have been extreme for him to take that extreme a step," says a former L.A. prosecutor and veteran of 100 jury trials.

In all, five jurors have now been removed in the two-month trial of Damian Williams, 20, and Henry Watson, 29. Before deliberations began, two jurors were dismissed for health reasons and one because he allegedly discussed the case with neighbors, telling them he would vote to convict the defendants even before he heard all the evidence. Another left for personal reasons. But the pivotal dismissal was of juror 373, a black woman in her 50s. To land on the jury, she had been selected from a pool of 128. She had answered a 43-page survey and had been subject to questioning by the prosecution and defense. She had even participated in two partial verdicts reached by the jury, which the judge also tossed out.

Still, her 11 colleagues last week sent a note to the judge asking that she be removed. "This has nothing to do with her views on the issue or her personality," they wrote. "She doesn't use common sense." After meeting with 373, four other jurors and lawyers from both sides, Ouderkirk dismissed her for "not deliberating in any true sense of the word"; earlier, he had even speculated she could be suffering from Alzheimer's or lying, In a subsequent letter to the judge, the juror suggested the case might have been better decided by him. She also accused some jurors of having prejudged the case. Ouderkirk denied a defense motion for a mistrial. Yet he failed to explain convincingly how juror 373's difficult behavior constituted grounds for dismissing her.

Should Williams and Watson be convicted, an appeals court is far more likely to reverse Ouderkirk's ruling to dismiss juror 373 than his decision to keep 104. Traditionally, courts give extraordinary deference to jurors. The assumption isn't so much that all jurors are Einsteins, but that judges can't be in the business of seeming to favor one verdict over another. Maybe juror 373 was in the twilight zone, as one juror suggested. Or maybe her allegedly distracted and forgetful behavior was little more than disagreeability. "You don't want one to be removed because he or she is a sole holdout," says Prof Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of Southern California law school.

The public-relations damage from the jury wrangling may already have been done. It would be ironic if this jury's verdict were publicly decried, given the court's pains to appear fair to a city still recovering from the riots that followed the disputed King verdict. Even after all the changes, the Denny jury is still racially diverse.

In the end, that may be the problem. When the Denny beating happened, different people in the city saw very different things. So, too, may have 12 jurors. And that could be inevitable in a case this volatile. In a criminal-justice system that prides itself on the mechanical application of rules, jurors are the human dimension. And their struggles may offer a lesson as powerful as any final verdict.