Talk of Law Schools: Forget Torts, Let's Watch O.J. Trial

IT'S not as gripping as Melrose Place, but it's close.

That's the consensus on Hudson Street, where four housemates, all students at Harvard Law School, are watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial in their living room.

Here, and everywhere else law students live and gather, talk of torts and contracts has been usurped by issues like prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark's lapel pin, and detective Mark Fuhrman's jacket.

``People in law school are usually so overworked that they lose touch with the outside world,'' says Hudson Street resident Tim Eckstein. ``If something isn't going to help their grades or increase their earning potential, they don't bother. But the O.J. trial is different - a lot of people are shamelessly glued to the tube.''

A sampling of law students around the nation suggests that Mr. Eckstein and his housemates are not alone in their enthusiasm. While viewership has ebbed since the opening statements, most aspiring attorneys say Simpson trial-watching is still high on their dockets.

``I admit it, I think it's fascinating,'' says Jeremy Brown, a student at the University of Buffalo Law School in New York. ``I've been a prisoner in the library for the last two years, so I've never seen an actual trial. It's interesting to watch the lawyers at work, to watch them think on their feet.''

Mr. Brown explains that many students in Buffalo feel a personal connection to the case because they grew up admiring Simpson, who was a star tailback for the National Football League's Buffalo Bills.

``O.J. is a local hero,'' he says. ``People here are hoping he doesn't also become a national disgrace.''

Back on Hudson Street, Eckstein says the demands of trial viewing even prompted him and his housemates to chip in for a second TV.

Now, he explains, they can monitor the trial while playing Sega Hockey or watching the Fox soap opera-esque drama ``Melrose Place'' at the same time.

According to Mark Sims, a second-year student at the University of Texas Law School in Austin, no fewer than 20 of his peers are gathered at any time to watch the trial in their law school's lounge.

He says students are spellbound by the examination of witnesses. ``These are some pretty skilled litigators,'' Mr. Sims says. ``They're like walking, talking textbooks.''

No escape

But even if law students try, few can completely escape the Simpson trial: Most say they hear a daily update, or at least a reference to it, in class. Professors, particularly those teaching criminal law and evidence classes, say the trial is an invaluable teaching tool.

``It's a law professor's dream, in some ways, to have a case like this,'' says Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law professor and member of the Simpson defense team. ``I think if you ask any law professor they'd say the students are focused on it.''

Last term, another Harvard Law professor, Charles Nesson, asked his students to explore pending issues in the Simpson case: the relevance of taped 911 calls, the admissibility of DNA evidence, improper search and seizure allegations, and the question of whether television cameras should be allowed in the courtroom.

When word of the Harvard project got back to trial Judge Lance Ito, he contacted Professor Nesson and asked him to send along the best student memos.

Not only did Judge Ito use these memos in his decision to admit cameras, he acknowledged the students' help during his argument.

``It was extremely effective as a motivator for students,'' Nesson says of the project. ``It brought the law alive for them, it made them feel like experts.''

Nevertheless, some law students say the trial is too atypical to warrant close study, and that it casts lawyering and the legal system in a negative light.

Stephen Portell, a second-year student at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, says most of his classmates are openly contemptuous of the Simpson trial.

``All it shows is that the justice system can be bent in favor of a rich celebrity,'' Mr. Portell says. ``It just reinforces every negative stereotype we're fighting against.''

For Harvard law student Rick Hahn, the trial has been a disappointment. ``It doesn't seem as high-minded and lofty as Perry Mason.'' Not limited to law

Still, the trial plays on.

Scott McMillin watches it over a carton of fried rice in the Harvard Law School Commons. He says that when he arrived home in Cleveland recently, he was mobbed by friends and relatives with questions about the trial. ``I don't think this phenomenon is limited to law students,'' he says.

A recent Times Mirror Survey supports that. It found more Americans can identify Lance Ito as the judge in the Simpson case than can identify Newt Gingrich as the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. The survey reports that nearly a quarter of respondents say they are closely following the Simpson trial.

It's late afternoon now, and Harvard students Mike Merola and Joe Gershman wander into the two- story house on Hudson Street, joining Hahn and Eckstein on the sagging blue couch.

``I'm really getting sick of this trial,'' Mr. Merola says, shaking his head with disdain. ``Should I make some popcorn?''

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