Simpson Trial's Lessons

SOMEDAY the O.J. Simpson trial will end. As of this writing, prosecutors indicated they hoped to wind up their rebuttal this week. The defense is appealing Judge Lance Ito's decision that former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman should not reappear before the jury. A lot of complaint has been voiced about defense tactics in the case, most recently that the defense was turning the case into a trial of Mr. Fuhrman instead of Mr. Simpson. Predictably, anger about this has come not only from the prosecution, but also from the victims' relatives, in this case the family of Ronald Goldman. Who can feel anything but compassion for the Goldmans, the Browns, and the many other relatives of crime victims in such circumstances? Yet it must be remembered that in a criminal case defense lawyers are supposed to do everything and anything allowed by the trial judge and the rules of evidence to call into question the prosecution's allegations. If Fuhrman's outrageous taped statements, which contradict what he said under oath before the jury, are not fair game, it's hard to see what is. Of course prosecutors are upset; they want a conviction, and a key witness's credibility has taken a direct hit. Judge Ito deserves applause for his attempts to maintain decorum in the courtroom, address unusual legal issues in a balanced manner, and keep calm under provocations that might have sent another judge ballistic. The behavior of the lawyers is another matter. While one expects a certain amount of antics from a defense team, this one has gone beyond acceptable bounds. But the prosecutors also have often seemed on the verge of losing control. While they are under incredible pressure in a high-visibility case, that doesn't excuse the constant snide remarks, baiting of the defense, and loss of temper. It's unseemly and unprofessional. If the case has any other lessons, it reinforces the view that the press could do a much better job of covering court trials. Rather than provide day-to-day snippets of who said what, with no context, journalists ought to consider taking a longer view in reporting: writing less-frequent stories that could provide a better sense of a witness's overall testimony, the strategies of the parties, and the legal background of the maneuvering. It's one thing to provide gavel-to-gavel television coverage in which legal experts are asked to explain what's going on during breaks. That can certainly provide citizens an education in how our judicial system works. But asking experts to predict judges' decisions and speculating on the possible consequences for each side risk lowering a most serious matter - the murder of two innocent people - to the level of a sports contest. Finally, as the trial winds down, all should remember that the verdict will properly come from the 12 men and women of the jury - not from public opinion polls or pundits. The burden of proof remains with the prosecution.

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