Like many Americans, I was dumbfounded by the verdict in the first Rodney King trial. How could any jury reach a decision of acquittal in view of the blatant, "unequivocal" evidence of the infamous 81-second videotape? For many observers, the answers were clear: racism on the part of an all-white Simi Valley jury, a corrupt justice system, an incompetent prosecution effort, or a combination of all three. These alternatives have been debated ad infinitum, but I think they are too simplistic. I think there is a more plausible factor, one which has not been discussed thus far. I will comment on the second trial shortly, but for now let me propose that the way the video was handled by the defense in the first trial defused its explosiveness, and, for the purpose of this column, inadvertently offered the practicing manager some important lessons.
I'm getting into dangerous territory here because I do not wish to trivialize the enormous social, political and moral issues raised by the King trials. Nevertheless, I have not been able to shake the feeling that there are some eerie parallels between the way that the jury interpreted the King video in the first trial and the way decision making occurs in companies that fail in today's marketplace.
First, let's consider the videotape itself. I still cannot watch it without feeling sick, angry or wanting to turn away. The vividness of the video and the emotional impact it engenders is powerful. I know I'm not alone. In fact, I occasionally run special seminars for senior police officials and in private, off-the-record conversations with several of them, they have confessed to the same reactions. Thus, it would seem that with the video as evidence, the first case should have been open-and-shut. Yet, it wasn't. What happened?
I propose that the defense attorneys did something brilliant, at least from a tactical legal perspective. They broke up the videotape into small components. They literally froze the tape frame by frame and in front of the jury analyzed each frame intellectually, dispassionately and endlessly. Simultaneously, they ran little snips of several frames backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, slow …