Civil Rights Lawyer Reflects on Former Client Rodney King, Who Died Sunday at 47


Police officers in riot gear advance past a burning
police car on the first night of the Rodney
King Riots on April 29, 1992 in Los Angeles.
a katz / Shutterstock

Oakland, Calif., civil rights lawyer John Burris represented Rodney King when he won a $3.8 million judgment against the Los Angeles police department, a victory for the man whose taped beating in 1991 led to riots the next year.

Burris remembered his client in an interview with San Jose Mercury News. King, 47, was found dead on Sunday in the bottom of his pool in Rialto, Calif., the victim of an apparent accidental drowning, report the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. His fiancee, a juror in the civil trial, found the body.

“He became the face of police brutality that everyone could see and no one could deny,” Burris told the Mercury News. “King is a symbolic figure because the images of his beating were really the first opportunity for the general white population to see this kind of brutality against an African American by the police.”

Three officers accused in King’s beating were acquitted in their first trial by a jury that included no blacks. A mistrial was declared for the fourth. Riots followed. King pleaded for calm, asking, “Can we all get along?” Two officers were later convicted on federal civil rights charges.

The New York Times says King’s life “was a roller coaster of drug and alcohol abuse, multiple arrests and unwanted celebrity.” The newspaper says he spent much of the civil award on legal fees, though he also bought cars and houses.

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