Simpson Case Gives Public Closer Look At US Justice System

AS press and public relish the respite from dawn-to-dusk media coverage of the O.J. Simpson story - slowed by the July 8 conclusion to his six-day preliminary hearing - legal scholars, sociologists, and other pundits are analyzing implications and fallout like no other trial in the nation's history.

They remind viewers that what has ensued is only a dress rehearsal to the multi-act trial that begins with an arraignment July 22 and follows with more formal proceedings within 60 days. Meanwhile, the crush of critical observers has been likened to judges at the Olympics who hold score cards to rate each story wrinkle for legal and cultural significance.

Television ratings for the preliminary trial coverage - higher in most places than the programs they replaced - show the Simpson affair continues to spark public attention as few events in this generation.

``People disapprove of themselves for their degree of absorption with this story and the burnout they now have,'' says Brian Stonehill, a media literacy theorist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. ``But [the Simpson trial] has all the dramatic elements of Shakespeare stories that have been holding us rapt for centuries; this one is unfolding for real on live TV.'' Opportunity for scholars

While many media critics have lambasted television stations for heavy coverage, several legal scholars welcome the opportunity to educate a public often ignorant of mundane legal matters. ``Clearly this preliminary hearing has generated more public interest than any trial in decades,'' says Myrna Raeder, vice-chair of the American Bar Association's Committee on Federal Rules of Evidence and Criminal Procedure. ``There has probably never been a bigger opportunity for millions of Americans to learn the intricacies of their legal system.''

Besides exposure to a new lexicon of legalese (such terms as ``exigent evidence'' and ``discovery''), viewers were exposed to a lengthy view of lawyering: methods of questioning and objecting, and attempts to persuade judges.

``Both prosecution and defense attorneys are top-rank adjudicators in the prime of their careers,'' Ms. Raeder says. ``Viewers could see the art and craft of what goes into the profession.'' Raeder and others note that because the preliminary hearing was carried ``live'' on commercial networks, participants went out of their way to explain their actions. Judge Kathleen Kennedy Powell, for instance, took several minutes quoting other case decisions as precedent for her ruling to deny a defense motion to suppress evidence.

``She took time to explain why she felt the Fourth Amendment [prohibiting unnecessary search and seizure] was still intact despite her ruling,'' Raeder says. ``That explanation will clearly be helpful in potential appellate reviews ... but it was also designed to educate the public about the intent of the law.'' How system works

Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, says more exposure of forensic, scientific, and medical evidence occurred at Simpson's preliminary hearing than the entire trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez, two brothers accused of killing their parents.

Mr. Pugsley also notes that the hearing underlined mistakes that could affect legal proceedings despite the availability and use of seemingly invincible high-tech procedures such as DNA and blood analysis:

* Autopsy results: Delaying the procedure can produce far less definitive results in establishing time of death, a crucial detail for confirming Simpson's alibi.

* Evidence gathering: Because of lighting used or angles from which photographs are shot, the age of blood could be obfuscated. Blood at the murder scene might escape detection.

* Preconceptions held by medical examiners: If the image of a particular design of knife is already being held in the mind's eye of the medical examiner, he might be more likely to opine that such a knife was the murder weapon.

``[Defense attorney Robert] Shapiro managed to embarrass one medical examiner by making him admit the police had shown him the knife prior to his opinion, and that he did not take the time to analyze the cuts more definitively,'' Pugsley says.

The looming question is whether or not prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Simpson. Analysts here say a decision is unlikely by the time formal pretrial processes begin July 22. At that time, Simpson will again be asked to enter a plea. After that, says Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, Simpson's murder trial could begin in mid-September. But a host of legal motions and issues is also likely to be debated before a not as-yet-chosen Superior Court judge. Among key issues are whether DNA samples gathered by the prosecution will be admissible as well as evidence of past spousal abuse.

Defense lawyers are also likely to file a motion asking the new judge to overrule Judge Kennedy Powell and dismiss murder charges for lack of evidence. Opinion over such interpretations as blood analysis and DNA comparisons will be a highlight of coming trial, most analysts say.

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