The O.J. Trial's Meltdown

GRUESOME evidence being presented this week at the O.J. Simpson trial has quieted, for now, some of the voyeuristic murder-as-amusement aspects of this unprecedented judicial proceeding.

Americans have been reminded that the trial isn't about prosecutor Marcia Clark's hair, Judge Lance Ito's beard, or Simpson house guest "Kato" Kaelin's antics. It is about solving two horrendous murders and seeing that justice is done.

The case has also become a test of the American court system in a media age. Is the idea that a defendant receives a fair trial by going before a jury of 12 citizens out of date? Can an impartial jury be found, and maintained, in a society awash with information? What does the public have a right to know about a trial? Does that right include TV in court?

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The best that can be said is that the Simpson case may lead by bad example. As the June 12 anniversary of the murders approaches, the trial is nowhere close to completion. Months of work lie ahead. Already, Los Angeles County has invested an estimated $6 million prosecuting it.

But huge taxpayer expense is only one reason to be troubled at the prediction, expressed by most expert observers, that the trial will never be completed and will end in either a mistrial or hung jury. With only two alternate jurors left, this would seem likely - even if both sides would agree to continue with fewer than 12, as California law allows.

Judge Ito has received a fair amount of criticism already for his handling of the case. He is just one participant whose professional career is on the line. But he may have been given an impossible task. He is vulnerable to assertions that he has allowed numerous delays, including hundreds of sidebar huddles. Maybe the jury need not have been sequestered. Perhaps TV should have been kept out of the courtroom.

But any shortcuts Ito might have taken might also have been grounds to appeal for a mistrial. His is truly a task requiring the wisdom of Solomon.

Whatever the outcome, the Simpson trial will lead to calls for reform, including the jury-selection system and the 12-member standard. The feasibility of jury trials themselves may be called into question. Perhaps special procedures can be developed to handle this kind of high-profile case.

Then, at least, something good could come of this tragedy.

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