Today in 1992: The "Rodney King" riots began in Los Angeles

April 29, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryNineteen years ago today, a jury verdict concluded a criminal trial that sparked mass riots that, over six days, killed 53 people, injured thousands more, and damaged $1 billion in property.

That verdict acquitted four white Los Angeles police officers from charges of assault and excessive force in arresting Rodney King, an African American.

From the start, the event was racially charged.

It started on March 3, 1991, when Rodney King and two passengers were driving west on a freeway through Los Angeles. The California Highway Patrol attempted to stop the car, and the car sped away.

After a high-speed chase, the car finally came to a stop, and two officers moved to arrest the occupants.

Because of an entanglement in an automatic seatbelt mechanism, King came out of the car last.

At this point, there was misunderstanding between King and the officers at the scene about the position King should hold himself in.

One of the officers threatened to use a taser on King if he did not lie on the ground in a prone position. King immediately lay on the ground.

When officers approached to handcuff King, he resisted, at which point the officers backed off and one fired the taser at King, incapacitating him.

At this point, George Holliday, a resident from the apartment complex across the street, began shooting his famous video of the incident.

The beating lasted 81 seconds, and left King with multiple facial fractures and a broken leg.

National Guardsmen, 1992 LA RiotsBoth Holliday and King’s brother, Paul, tried to report the misconduct several times to the police, but to no avail.

Holliday then took the tape to a local news station, and it was aired around the world within hours.

Within a week of the beating, LA District Attorney Ira Reiner sought an indictment against the four officers in the tape, which was returned by a grand jury on March 14.

Because of the media attention on the trial, the defendants requested a change of venue, and were able to get the trial moved to Simi Valley with a jury selected from San Fernando Valley.

The jury composed of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian.

The prosecution relied almost exclusively on the videotape, did not call an LAPD use-of-force expert until rebuttal, didn’t present any civilian witnesses to the beating, nor did Rodney King testify.

The jury acquitted all defendants of all charges except defendant Powell’s assault charge, over which the jury was hung.

The acquittal “stunned” President George H.W. Bush, who then ordered a federal investigation into the misconduct.

Federal prosecutors then brought civil right violation charges against the officers.

The prosecution in this case, however, used a plethora of evidence aside from the videotape, and the jury returned guilty verdicts for two officers, and the other two were acquitted.

However, this verdict couldn’t undo the last verdict, the aftermath of which became etched into the nation’s memory.

Nevertheless, because the event will go down in history, lessons can be learned to avoid such tragedies in the future.