Curbs Urged on Witnesses for Hire
Simpson case spurs California lawmakers to urge ban on peddling trial testimony for cash
LOS ANGELES — SHOULD witnesses in headline-grabbing trials be prevented from selling their stories to the media?
The practice has become commonplace in an age of ``checkbook journalism,'' when some media outlets are willing to pay money - sometimes sensational amounts - for potentially tantalizing tales.
Now an effort is under way in California to curb such practices.
This week, lawmakers will take up unusual - and controversial - legislation designed to prohibit those who testify from peddling their stories before they get to court.
It is one of a jury box-full of measures on domestic violence awaiting state lawmakers as they return from a summer recess.
Amid the glare over the O.J. Simpson case, bills are being drafted on everything from police training to pretrial publicity.
What ultimately is adopted will be important. California sits on the cusp of the swirling national debate over domestic violence. It will help set the agenda for the rest of the country.
``It seems inevitable that there will be a lot of activity on this,'' says Larry Lynch, co-publisher of Political Pulse, a Sacramento newsletter that follows activities of the state legislature.
Behind the move to prevent witnesses from being paid for interviews is the belief that it could damage a defendant's right to a fair trial: By accepting money in advance for their statements, witnesses threaten to undermine the credibility of their testimony.
Thus, state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. (D) of San Francisco is proposing to make it a misdemeanor for those who testify in a criminal trial to take money for their stories before or during the court proceeding. Violators could be fined and/or jailed.
Testimony for rent
Some witnesses in the Simpson case have sold interviews to the press, which is what prompted Speaker Brown to act. He says such payments ``taint the system.''
Brown's isn't the only measure that addresses the issue. State Sen. Quentin Kopp (I) of San Francisco proposes even more sweeping restrictions, and he would apply them to civil as well as criminal trials. Limits would be placed on jurors and lawyers, too.
But some legal scholars express doubts about the constitutionality of such moves on grounds that they would raise questions of freedom of speech and press.
``I have no doubt that a fair trial is a compelling interest,'' says Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California. But he says he doesn't think prohibiting a witness from selling a story is really essential to a fair trial.
Mr. Chemerinsky and others argue that the credibility of witnesses is often compromised and questioned. Some are granted immunity to testify. Prisoners frequently take the stand.
It is up to the jury, Chemerinsky argues, to determine who is credible and who isn't.
As Chemerinsky puts it: ``If somebody gets a benefit, that may cause a jury to look more carefully at him, but it doesn't necessarily mean he loses credibility.''
Brown, a lawyer himself, says his intention is not to prohibit anyone from talking to the press - only to prevent them from getting paid for it. He says he thinks his measure, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, would pass constitutional muster.
The practice of paying witnesses for stories has grown in recent years with the rise of television magazine shows such as ``Hard Copy'' and ``Inside Edition,'' as well as the ever-present supermarket tabloids, all of which compete intensely for stories.
Still, many in the mainstream press, even though they consider such practices unethical, don't support the Brown legislation either, because of First Amendment concerns. The California Bar Association has also expressed reservations about some of Mr. Kopp's provisions.
Despite all the misgivings, some limits on pretrial publicity could still become law. As one Sacramento lobbyist, referring to Brown's power, puts it: ``If the Speaker wants the bill passed, he'll pass it.''
Almost certain to be enacted between now and the end of the state legislative session Aug. 31 will be tougher domestic-violence laws.
One measure being pushed would require three years of probation and court supervision for anyone convicted of domestic violence; another would stiffen penalties for two-time offenders.
Other proposals seek to set up more shelters for victims, establish a computerized registry for restraining orders, and expand training and education programs for judges and police in the domestic violence field.