The Videotape that Marked History
At 12:45 am on March 3 1991, George Holliday heard the sound of police sirens and a commotion outside of his apartment building in Lake View Terrace. From his second-floor bedroom window, about ninety feet away, he saw a man with his hands on the roof of a car, surrounded by police officers. A police helicopter hovered overhead.
Holliday grabbed his new camcorder, went out on his balcony and began to videotape the confrontation. For nine minutes and twenty-two seconds, Holliday kept his camera trained on the scene, but it was just one minute of footage that would shock the world and spark 'the Handicam Revolution'.
By the time Holliday started videotaping, LAPD officers were already beating King. His tape begins when King charges officer Laurence Powell, who knocks King to the ground with a blow from his baton. Three other officers hit and kick King, who tries to rise several times, until he is taken into custody just over a minute later. In total, officers swung at King fifty-six times, delivering a beating that required hospitalization. King suffered facial injuries including fractured bones, and one of his legs was broken.
Realizing the significance of his footage, Holliday phoned the local police station, but claims that the person who answered the phone 'blew him off'. Next, he tried CNN, but no one was there to take his call. Finally, Holliday took his tape to local Los Angeles station KTLA. They edited out the blurry first 13 seconds of the tape showing King charging Officer Powell, and broadcast the last 68 seconds of the beating. The next day CNN and NBC obtained copies, and the tape was seen around the world.
Public reaction to the Holliday video was immediate and strong. Viewers responded to what they perceived as irrefutable evidence of extreme police brutality. The fact that King was black and all the officers involved were white also drew attention to perceived racism on the part of the LAPD. Within 24 hours of the tape being shown for the first time, the FBI opened an investigation, the LAPD ordered and Internal Affairs investigation, and L.A.'s Mayor Tom Bradley promised "appropriate action" against the officers.
Within days, fifteen officers who were at the scene were suspended and the District Attorney's office sought indictments against the four officers who participated in the beating. On March 14, the grand jury indicted officers Laurence Powell, Stacey Koon, Timothy Wind and Theodore ('Ted') Briseno on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force.
The Verdict that Sparked the LA Riots
The common wisdom about videos and about video evidence is that it's the infallible witness -- a witness whose memory doesn't fade, whose perceptions don't influence the way in which the event is recorded.
--Alan Tieger, prosecuting attorney in the federal trial of the officers.
The People of the State of California v. Laurence Powell et. al. began exactly one year after the first broadcast of the Holliday videotape. In a highly unusual move, the trial was moved from Los Angeles County to Ventura County because the attorneys defending the officers convinced the judge that a 'lynch mob mentality' in Los Angeles precluded the possibility of a fair trial. The decision to move the trial from multi-racial LA to a predominantly white, middle-class, 'law and order' suburban community would return to haunt officials when the verdict was returned.
On the first day of the trial, jurors were shown the full tape, including the first section that appears to show King resisting arrest and lunging toward Officer Powell. Defence attorneys made much of the events leading up to the confrontation between King and the police officers. He had lead the police on a high-speed chase on the freeway and then residential streets. When his car was finally stopped, King appeared intoxicated, spoke gibberish, and his behaviour was bizarre and erratic.
When police used Tasers - guns that fire electrified darts - to try and subdue him, he wasn't slowed by a jolt of electricity that would normally bring a person to his knees. The defence asserted that his bizarre behaviour, lack of response to the Taser hits, and his strength in physically resisting the officers trying to hold him down led the officers to believe that he was high on PCP. As such, they considered him extremely dangerous, and capable of the 'superhuman' strength that can be one of the effects of a PCP high.
Despite all of this, the defense team still had to find a way to defuse the power of the Holliday videotape. Their strategy was to claim that the videotape actually showed the officers responding in a manner consistent with the training they received for subduing a violent and resistant suspect. By slowing down the video and breaking it into segments, they tried to depict the behaviour of the officers as justifiable reactions to the way Rodney King was behaving, which could be perceived as dangerous or threatening.
In this surprising twist, George Holliday's astonishing camcorder footage became a tool for both the prosecution and the defense.
The four officers were acquitted by an all-white jury on April 29, 1992. Within two hours, riots erupted in South Central Los Angeles as angry viewers took to the streets to vent their rage at the verdict. Horrific footage of the beating of trucker Reginald Denny was repeatedly broadcast on the news. Arson attacks, looting, shootings, and random beatings turned parts of South Central into a war zone. Rodney King himself responded to the escalating violence with his famous plea, People, can we all get along?
By the time it was all over, 54 people had been killed, 2382 injured (including 228 critically), 7000 fires were set, over 12 000 people were arrested, over 1 billion dollars of damage had been done.
A Second Attempt at Justice
Within days of the verdict, the US Department of Justice announced that a federal grand jury would investigate the case. In August, the four officers were indicted and ordered to stand trial again, this time in a federal court. In United States of America v. Stacey C. Koon et al., the officers were accused of violating the civil rights of Rodney King.
Prosecutors in the second trial used an FBI-enhanced version of the Holliday videotape to make their case. While the video remained their central piece of evidence, additional information gained by prosecutors after the first trial strengthened their case. Most damning was the fact that the two officers who were supposed to drive a badly-injured Rodney King directly to the hospital after the confrontation actually made a detour to their police station to show their 'trophy' suspect to other officers. Officers Powell and Wind covered up the detour by putting false information in their time logs and omitting mention of the visit.
The jury's verdict was announced in April 1993: Officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell were guilty. In deciding the length of their sentences, Judge Davies determined that the beating constituted aggravated assault - assault using a dangerous weapon - which carried a longer prison sentence. However, he also took into account other circumstances such as "the extraordinary notoriety and national media coverage" of the case. In the end, Koon and Powell were each sentenced to 30 months in prison. There was no repeat of the rioting that followed the first trial.
The following year, Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in his civil trial against six of the officers present at the beating. The videotape was introduced as evidence in that trial as well.
Today, none of the four officers who stood trial remains with the LAPD.
The Legacy of the Rodney King Case
The significance with the Rodney King case, I think, is that it represented a kind of breakthrough in public awareness of the ways in which, and to some extent the legal ways in which, video can be used. Now those who might consider crimes have to know that, surprisingly, what they do can be preserved. and it can be preserved and can be used essentially in a way that is beyond dispute.
--Allan Tieger, prosecuting attorney in the federal trial of the officers
The legacy of the Rodney King case stretches well beyond the changes that the LAPD made in its officer training program. It has affected how news is gathered, how ordinary citizens use their camcorders, how video is used in human rights advocacy.
It was the videotape of the beating of Rodney King that inspired musician Peter Gabriel to co-found Witness, the non-profit organization that provides video technology to human rights activists around the world. Gabriel believes, If you can get a camera to the right place at the right time, that can make all the difference. Rodney King is an example of a little bit of video footage going a long way.