A prosecutor pounced on a defense error to raise the issue of racism in the Rodney King trial, accusing a white policeman of referring to blacks as "gorillas" shortly before King's videotaped beating.
Under questioning Tuesday, Officer Lawrence Powell denied there were any racial overtones in a patrol-car computer message in which he said a dispute involving a black family was "right out of `Gorillas in the Mist.' "It was the first time race became an issue in the trial, which began Feb. 4.
King is black; the four officers charged with brutality in his beating are white.
Powell had spent most of the day explaining that the beating was justified under Los Angeles Police Department rules. Then his lawyer, Michael Stone, mentioned patrol-car computer messages - something lawyers on both sides had agreed not to bring up.
Deputy District Attorney Terry White moved to introduce the "Gorillas in the Mist" message. "Gorillas in the Mist" is a movie about a researcher working with gorillas in Africa.
Outside the jury's presence, Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg ruled that the message - a transcript of which was released last year - was admissible because Stone had broached the subject.
Stone argued that it should not be allowed because it was ambiguous. However, the judge said it clearly had racial implications.
Powell talked via computer with Officer Corinna Smith, who was in another patrol car, 20 minutes before King was clubbed, kicked and shocked with a stun gun on March 3, 1991. Smith had mentioned a call she handled.
"Sounds almost exciting as our last call. It was right out of `Gorillas in the Mist,' " Powell wrote.
"Ha Ha Ha. Let me guess who be the parties," Smith messaged back.
Part of Powell's response was: "Good guess."
Under cross-examination, Powell denied the messages had racial overtones.
"Mr. Powell, this last call you handled involved a family of African Americans, didn't it?" White asked.
"Yes," Powell replied.
"And you described them as gorillas?" the prosecutor asked.
"No," said Powell.
"There were no gorillas there, were there?" White asked.
"I didn't see any," said Powell.
The prosecutor, who is black, asked Powell whether the language "who be the parties," mocked any ethnic group.
"Not that I know of," said Powell.