Whatever the ultimate effect of his testimony on the jury, Rodney King's two days on the stand transformed him from a remote figure on a videotape into a soft-spoken man with a troubled past and a fuzzy memory.
"Now he's not this mythic looming presence in the sky," said Ira Salzman, an attorney for one the four police officers accused of violating King's civil rights. "He's just a guy."By the time the witness left the stand Wednesday, defense lawyers had come perilously close to giving the impression that the mild-mannered King was being subjected to yet another beating.
King's most frequent responses on cross-examination were "I'm not sure" and "I don't remember." At times he would gaze off into space as if seeking a moment lost in memory. Then he would shake his head and say softly, "I don't remember."
When a lawyer raised his criminal record and the lies he once told to save himself from returning to prison, King replied with feeling: "I did do that back then. But I'm here today, and I only want to tell the truth the best I remember."
Jurors in the state trial, which ended in acquittals and an outbreak of riots, complained afterward about King's absence. The state prosecutor had concerns about his ability to withstand cross-examination, fearing volatile responses.
Now, two years have passed since the beating, and King, a folk hero of sorts in the black community, showed confidence. No matter how hard he was pressed by defense lawyers, he didn't raise his voice. He was neither combative nor defensive, instead admitting his failings and saying he was sorry he lied in the past.
When he strode into the courtroom on Tuesday, spectators seemed to catch their breath. He lived up to his star billing.
No longer the swollen-faced victim in post-beating pictures, here was a tall man with movie-star looks who wore fashionably tailored suits and punctuated his testimony with sound effects and mimicry.
He shouted to show jurors how he cried out in pain, and he raised his voice to a falsetto pitch to show how he remembered his assailants chanting, "What's up, nigger? . . . How do you feel, killer?"
King seemed weary as attorney Harland Braun accused him of lying and portrayed him as a man who would do anything to escape jail. Both Braun and attorney Michael Stone accused King of tailoring his testimony to help his $50 million lawsuit against the city.
King denied it but acknowledged that, yes, he would like to make a lot of money on the suit.
"What is a lot of money, sir?" asked Stone.
"More than I have now," King said.
The courtroom erupted in laughter, and for the first time in two days, King smiled.