California: The Deadwyler Verdict

  • Share
  • Read Later

Peering into the cold red eye of the television camera, as they had for most of eight days, the nine members of the coroner's jury filed into hot, crowded Room 150 of the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice. Had they reached a verdict? They had: Leonard Deadwyler, 25, an unemployed Negro mechanic, had been shot, and 'killed, accidentally by white Los Angeles Patrolman Jerold Bova early last month, after he was stopped while speeding his pregnant wife to a hospital (TIME, June 3).

A scattering of militant Negroes tried to brandish the verdict like a red flag.

Even as loudspeakers blared the decision to a small crowd on the steps out side, three Negro men — two of them Black Muslims — shouted back their anger. "Justice!" cried one. "There's no justice! Just you watch; they're gonna kill us all off, one by one." That night a few nervous Negro shop owners scrawled BLOOD BROTHER and NEGRO OWNED on Watts store windows that they wanted to remain unbroken.

Cohesive Conclusion. Yet the great majority of the Negroes of Watts accepted the verdict without rioting. A window or two were smashed; a Molotov cocktail arced through the darkness. But the facts of the Deadwyler case—demonstrated to all through the dumb, impartial TV eye—carried conviction. Negro witnesses contradicted one another repeatedly, offering little to back up Mrs. Barbara Deadwyler's story that Bova had stuck his revolver through the car window to shoot her husband deliberately. One swore that the shot was fired from a moving police car; others divided on the crucial point as to whether the Deadwyler car had lurched forward after it stopped, as Bova said it had done, and caused the investigating policeman to fire his revolver involuntarily.

The police, on the other hand, presented a painstaking and cohesive case. The 1957 Buick they claimed had led them on an 80-m.p.h. chase was tested on a treadmill to prove it was still capable of such high speeds; a similar car was used to re-enact the shooting for photographic exhibits. A ballistics expert testified that gunpowder burns on the victim's shirt proved the gun had been fired inside the car, and a physiologist was brought in to verify that a man thrown off balance would tend to make a reflexive clutching movement that could pull a trigger.

Police Inspector John Powers, however, indirectly chided Bova for not following the rulebook when he put his revolver—and the whole upper part of his body—inside a suspicious car. Said he: "When an officer sticks his head in the door of the car, he stands the chance of either being shot or struck by the suspect in the vehicle. He places himself at a disadvantage."

As for famed Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, he was in a desultory mood. "I'm getting a little weary of attacks on the police department, and the men are too," he said. "It looks like Oswald had more people defending him when he shot the President of the United States than Officer Bova had defending him."