THE 1992 race riot of South-Central Los Angeles left 50 dead, a billion dollars in damage, and began with a jury verdict. This week, 18 months later, that is how it will finally conclude. There is an eerie symmetry to the trials that stand on either side of the deadliest racial conflagration in a US city since the Civil War. The first of these courtroom dramas resulted in the acquittal of four white police officers whose relentless beating of black motorist Rodney King was captured on America's Least Funny Home Video. A blighted community, poised for violence, exploded. It took three days to put out the fire. (A year later, an apparent injustice was corrected when two of the cops were convicted of violating Mr King's civil rights in a new, federal, trial.) In the case ending this week, the jury has handed down all but two of a dozen verdicts against two black men who viciously beat a white truck driver (and others) during the mayhem in April of last year. They, too, were caught on camera, gleefully hurling a brick against the already battered skull of Reginald Denny. And they, too, have been acquitted - so far - on the most serious charges against them. But the jury remains deadlocked on two counts, one of which could put 20-year-old Damian Williams in prison for life. The second would add two-to-four years to what would otherwise be a six-month sentence for the other defendant, Henry Watson. Waiting for the final decision, Los Angeles is tensed but prepared. Few expect violence, no matter what the outcome. For one thing, unlike the first King trial, which was transplanted to an all-white suburb, the Denny jury is a near-perfect demographic rainbow: four blacks, four Hispanics, two white and two Asians. No one can cry foul on that score. Besides, the acquittals thus far have already vented a lot of steam. Another striking parallel between these bookend cases is the benign, forgiving attitude of the victims. An otherwise inarticulate Mr King will be remembered for his soft manner and his halting, haunting words: ''Can we all get along?'' Mr Denny - who has repeatedly undergone brain and reconstructive surgery - has been even more magnanimous, hugging the mothers of his attackers in court and pledging not to appeal the verdict, no matter what. Then there is the curious matter of the video tapes. If anything, the clip of Mr Denny being dragged out of his truck and mauled, and Williams' victory dance after cracking his skull, were more horrific than the images of Mr King writhing under a delugeof baton blows. And yet, once the jury put the accused's actions in the context of ''mob hysteria,'' most of the charges were rejected. Cinema verite, it seems, is not the naked truth after all. If the last two charges are also dismissed, a roughly equal justice will have been served in each trial. Any such outcome, of course, should be a coincidence. But one can't help but suspect that it isn't. Though cloistered during their deliberations, the Denny jury has shown many signs of cracking under the strain of live TV cameras and national scrutiny. Two of the jurors have been replaced by alternates. (A third was accused by fellow jurors of arguing for a quick acquittal so she could get home to her boyfriend.) The pressure to strike a balance with the Rodney King verdicts has clearly been enormous. There is a final symmetry between the two California state trials, perhaps the most curious of all: the absence of race as a factor in courtroom argument. Both prosecutors shied away from ascribing racist motives to the attacks, though race was obviously at the core of both incidents. Perhaps they reasoned that the video tapes removed the need to establish any motives at all. More than likely, however, the prosecutors decided that moving through the minefield of race relations in America was simply too hazardous a course. And so a paradox: two trials born of violence and symbolising the great American divide between black and white do not so much as raise the issue of race. Was justice colour blind, or simply blind? The failure to address the core issue of race in the King and Denny trials reflects a wider reluctance in America to confront the obvious: race matters. ''When politicians,'' notes Senator Bill Bradley, ''don't talk about the reality of what everyone knows exists - that as slavery was our original sin, so race remains our unresolved dilemma - they cannot lead us out of crisis.'' The difficulty in discussing race honestly and constructively is evident, most immediately, in the neck-and-neck campaign for New York mayor between incumbent David Dinkins, who is black, and his challenger Rudolf Giuliani, who is white. Two weeks ago President Clinton, in endorsing Mr Dinkins, said ''too many of us are still too unwilling to vote for people who are different than us.'' His comments have unleashed a torrent of accusations and counter-accusations about playing ''race cards.'' It is no longer possible, it seems, to discuss race relations in the context of an election, so most don't even try.