The Spotlight Intensifies On Simpson Case's Judge
LOS ANGELES — ACADEMICS have vilified him for being too lenient. Many in the press complain he is too slow. Politicians have lambasted him for grandstanding. And performers from ventriloquists to ''The Dancing Itos'' poke fun at what they call his ''inscrutable Asian'' style.
Now, with jurors bickering, lawyers quarreling, and a trial that sporadically appears likely to end in a mistrial, serious jurists and the public are focusing on the man who arguably has become the world's most recognized jurist, Superior Court Judge Lance Ito. Their question: How much of the trial's ongoing problems could be his fault?
''If you look at Judge Ito in isolation, he is the personification of proper judicial temperament,'' says Myrna Raeder, vice chairwoman of the American Bar Association's Committee on Federal Rules of Evidence and Criminal Procedure. ''But in the glare of such a high-profile case, his willingness to listen to all parties ad infinitum has led to an interminable trial ... and exacerbated problems.''
Granted all the other pressures -- live, in-court television coverage; out-of-court press scrutiny; and the reputation of high-powered participants -- it is the trial's length, most observers say, that has led to the latest crisis.
While investigating allegations of jury misconduct, Ito was asked by one sitting juror on April 20 to be released from the panel, ''because I can't take it anymore.... It's just a combination of things....'' Ito persuaded her to stay and removed three sheriff's deputies assigned to supervise the jury. The next day, 13 of 18 jurors staged a revolt, refusing to come to court in protest the dismissals.
''This is so unique, in 32 years of practice, I have never seen anything like today,'' said defense attorney Johnnie Cochran.
Ito called off court testimony on April 21 and 24 and reinterviewed jurors on April 24, in search of problems they might be encountering during the more than 100 days of sequestration. The episode is being called both a crisis and an opportunity because it offers Ito a chance to change direction, rein in participants, and serve notice of new order for the remainder of the trial.
''By staging their mutiny, the jurors reminded the judge and lawyers that they can't simply be treated as cattle,'' says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles. ''They feel they are being shuttled back and forth at the whim of lawyers who argue too long and consume a good portion of the day [arguing].''
The extra strain on jurors brought on by delays, complicated legal motions, in-court bickering, and constant sidebars -- 400 at last count -- has opened the door to the latest round of criticisms of Ito.
''Was Ito so busy that he couldn't have conducted his juror interviews on Saturday and Sunday?'' asks Stan Goldman, professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Professor Goldman and others say Ito could do much to speed the trial, from hearing lengthy motions only before or after scheduled 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. court time, to sanctioning lawyers for arguing beyond his instruction, to demanding that other interruptions -- such as necessary appearances by participating lawyers at other trials -- be scheduled during noncourt time.
Given the unprecedented interest in the Simpson trial, however, other legal observers feel Ito is doing as well as could be expected.
''A lot of the problems of time consumption are brought on by Ito's decision to allow cameras in the courtroom,'' says Carol Chase, a former federal prosecutor, now teaching at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. ''Lawyers on both sides are playing to the public as if it's theater, with their precious reputations at stake.''
Some observers feel Ito's decision to sequester the jury has been behind the allegations of testy, cooped up jurors. But they say his alternative of not sequestering them would have prompted far worse criticism.
''My guess is that the vast majority of judges would have ordered sequestration because of the publicity of this case,'' says Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of law at the University of Southern California Law School here. ''And if they didn't, they would be criticized for not shielding the jurors from the potential contamination of press accounts that are not subject to rules of evidence.''
Those who support Ito's performance so far remind the public of his duty to be fair to all sides and avoid judicial missteps that could overturn a verdict in appellate court.
''Even with the most dictatorial judge imaginable, we wouldn't be that much farther along than we are now,'' Professor Chemerinsky says. He reminds trial watchers that one prosecutor has had to be hospitalized for exhaustion he attributed to the trial, Chemerinsky adds: ''Faster isn't necessarily better. If Ito arbitrarily precludes argument for the sake of speed, he risks that any conviction could be overturned on appeal by lawyers claiming they weren't given time to present arguments.''
Some have suggested that if sequestration is the problem, Ito should mitigate its stifling effects by sending jurors home with sheriff's deputies to ensure that they will not read or watch press accounts of the trial. Others say the court could hire counselors for the jurors to help them cope.
But both scenarios are unlikely, observers here say.
''Those are unworkable for the sheer problem of cost,'' says Layn Phillips, a former trial judge.
The best tactic from here, Phillips says, is for Ito to keep testimony moving, limit legal arguments, limit sidebars, and steer clear of needless clashes.