Perplexing verdicts, such as from the Casey Anthony case, are a frequent occurrence for Americans, Angelenos included. We accept that they are just part of our judicial system and hope that one day justice will be served. Black Los Angeles has a long history of surprising verdicts. Some led to riots, while others led to even more shocking verdicts down the road. Such was the case with the Deadwyler Coroner's Inquest and Wrongful Death Civil Suit in the mid-1960s. In many ways, the Deadwyler proceedings were a pre-cursor to the O.J. trial.
Leonard Deadwyler (the irony of his last name was not lost on anyone) died while rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital in May of 1966. He was "accidentally" shot by the police when he was pulled over for speeding. It was called the "White Handkerchief Case" because Deadwyler honored the tradition of his native Georgia by tying a white handkerchief to his car antenna to indicate an emergency. (Actually, he improvised by using white cloth.) Unfortunately, this was not enough to save his life after being stopped for speeding down Avalon Boulevard toward L.A. County Hospital.
From law enforcement's standpoint, I imagine there was still a lot of nervousness from the riots that had occurred the year before. However for black Los Angeles, the Deadwyler shooting was just another reminder of the perilous path for black males.
"Deadwyler" became both a noun and a verb in my South Los Angeles neighborhood. As in, "Keep your hands in plain sight if you get pulled over by the police. You don't want to be a 'deadwyler.'" Or, "Be careful driving west of Pico, you might get 'deadwylered.'"
My mother, who had remarried the year before, was about to give birth around the time of the shooting. I was so afraid that my new daddy was going to be "deadwylered" when he took my mom to Broadway Hospital to have the baby. It didn't help that neighbors were constantly telling him, "Now you be careful -- and don't even think about using a white handkerchief on your antenna!"
A coroner's inquest was held in June of 1966 to investigate the Deadwyler shooting. It was the first televised inquest in L.A. history and was covered by KTLA and their renowned anchorman George Putnam. I joined my mom and neighbors in front of the T.V. everyday to watch it. (Footage can be found in UCLA's Film and Television Archive.)
Representing the Deadwyler family was an up and coming young black attorney named Johnnie Cochran. He gives a detailed description of the shooting, the inquest, and the subsequent civil suit, in his 1996 autobiography Journey to Justice. The death was ruled accidental and Cochran lost the wrongful death civil suit that followed. Still, with this case, and a multitude of others that followed, he cemented his position in black South L.A. as the defender of black men in trouble with the law -- whether they were rich or poor.
As a former Los Angeles city attorney, and assistant district attorney, Cochran knew the system well. As a lawyer for the defense, he became adept at the following: finding holes in the prosecutor's case, introducing reasonable doubt, and insisting on the burden of proof required to convict.
In one of his famous rhymes, he is quoted as saying, "If it doesn't make sense, you should find for the defense."
Perhaps this explains our most recent vacuous verdict.
Linnie Frank Bailey is writing an anthology of essays called Like Sunshine and Rain on growing up black in L.A. 'back in the day.'