Wheels of Justice Lurch After Los Angeles Riots
By SETH MYDANS
Published: October 13, 1992
Thousands of people were arrested during the riots last spring on charges of arson, assault, looting and curfew violations, clogging the courts and jails beyond capacity. But five months later only a handful of people have been imprisoned, and officials say most of the serious offenders are likely to go unpunished.
During three days of near-anarchy here, dozens of people got away with murder: only two cases have been brought in connection with any of the 52 riot-related deaths, a spokesman for the Distict Attorney said.
Only two people have been convicted of arson in the hundreds of fires that were set in the largest outbreak of lawlessness the city has ever seen. Most of the 8,000 people arrested for looting and curfew violations were freed as soon as their cases were heard, after only a few days in jail. Focus on Truck Driver
Several highly visible cases are moving through the courts, most of them centered on the televised beating of a truck driver, Reginald O. Denny, shortly after the violence broke out on April 29. None have yet gone to trial. Although more than 2,000 injuries were reported in the riots, many in assaults, few other cases have been brought.
"In chaos, it's very difficult to identify suspects and sort out who was responsible for what," said the District Attorney's spokesman, Sandi Gibbons. "Isn't that always the case? From the beginning of time, when there's chaos, chaos rules."
Officials had hoped it might be different in this electronic age. A joint local-Federal team was formed to investigate the riots, and it spent weeks poring over hundreds of feet of videotape and hundreds of photographs.
The pictures show hordes of people running amok, but only a few prosecutions have resulted. Last week the police appealed to the public to help identify six men shown in videotapes at the flashpoint of the riots, at Florence and Normandie Avenues, where Mr. Denny was dragged from his truck and severely beaten. Some Victims Still Unidentified
"There were probably about 42 known victims out there and at least 25 suspects," Reggie Maeweather, a Los Angeles detective, said at a news conference where the police released still frames from videotapes of the violence. "There's probably well over an additional 50 victims to be identified from Florence and Normandie."
So far seven men have been charged in that violence, including six accused of beating Mr. Denny, who sufferred extensive head injuries.
Of the thousands of people who took part in the riots, which erupted after four police officers were acquitted in the beating of a motorist, Rodney G. King, these men, along with a dozen others facing serious charges, are the ones who stand to pay the judicial price for days of violence and disorder:
*Damian Williams, Henry Watson and Antoine Miller are accused of beating Mr. Denny after he was dragged from his truck. They are also accused of beating 12 other people, including an infant, in seven different vehicles before the attack on Mr. Denny.
*Gary Williams is accused of picking Mr. Denny's pocket as the truck driver was lying unconscious on the ground. Mr. Williams was one of the first four men arrested in the beating, but his case, which does not involve an accusation of violence, has been separated from the other three.
*Lance Jerome Parker is accused of firing a shotgun at the gasoline tank of Mr. Denny's truck and at an unidentified woman in a car.
*Anthony Lamar Brown is accused of spitting on Mr. Denny after he was beaten, and of kicking another motorist, Manuel Vaca. Lewis Curl Foster is charged with assault and burglary in the beating of Mr. Vaca.
*Thurman Ivory Wood faces life in prison for the shooting of a firefighter who was wounded in the face. He is also charged with three counts of attempted murder in the shootings of four attendants at two gasoline stations.
*Fidel Ortiz and Leonard Sosa are accused of beating a minister who tried to stop them from looting. The minister, Wallace Tope, remains in a coma.
*Three men are accused of murder in the shooting of a motorcyclist in Long Beach in the most widely publicized killing of the riots. The motorcyclist had driven to the scene of the rioting to aid a stranded friend.
*Juan Guevara has been charged with murder under the "provocative act" concept, in which he is accused in the death of a companion who was killed when three men guarding a paint shop returned fire after Mr. Guevara shot at them.
*Four men are accused of attempted murder in the beating of a man on a bicycle in the beach district of Venice. Another Casualty: Statistics
Statistics were also a casualty of the chaos of the riots. The official death toll has risen, fallen and has begun to rise again. The latest figure is 52, after the recent discovery of a charred skeleton inside a burned-out Woolworth's store. "We believe it was a looter trapped by the fire," said Capt. Steve Ruda, a fire department spokesman.
Partly because of sometimes overlapping jurisdictions, estimates of the total number of people arrested have ranged from 7,000 to 18,000.
John Lynch, director of central operations for the Los Angeles County District Attorney, put the total number of arrests at about 8,000. About half of the charges were felonies, mostly looting, handled by his office, and half were misdemeanors, mostly curfew violations, handled by municipal courts.
The judicial crush was so heavy that the police had to hold some suspects in buses, and Gov. Pete Wilson signed an emergency order extending to seven days the statutory two-day deadline for their arraignment.
Only 600 to 700 of the cases remain in the court system today, Mr. Lynch said, adding: "The majority of people entered a plea, received probation or relatively short jail sentences and that was it. Very few people were sent up to prison." 600 Buildings Totally Destroyed
Estimates of the number of fires during the riots have also sharply fluctuated. Captain Ruda said current figures show that 863 buildings burned in the city of Los Angeles, including 600 that were destroyed.
In the county fire department's jurisdiction 110 structures were destroyed, a spokesman said. About 300 fires were set in Long Beach and about 100 buildings were damaged by fire in Compton.
In all, Mr. Lynch said, about 60 cases of arson were filed, including the case of two brothers charged with burning their own market in Long Beach.
Of the thousands of riot-related arrests, about one-third were dismissed, as against a normal dismissal rate of about 10 percent, because of the difficulty of tying specific people to specific actions in instances where the police rounded up large groups of looters.
The cases were "mind-numbingly similar," Mr. Lynch said, mostly involving people caught carrying items from looted stores. Although prosecutors took a hard line, typically demanding one-year prison terms on burglary charges, judges tended to be lenient.
"I think that while you can characterize the riots as a sort of monstrous event that took lives and did all this damage," Mr. Lynch said, "when you get down to the individual who is standing in front of you, you just can't whip up the moral outrage at the individual that you can at the event."