OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 8 1997 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       Waiting for the verdict in Camp O.J. 2 is an immersion in knowledgeability without knowledge. All sorts of law professors and lawyers and "court observers," as the journalistic euphemism describes informed hangers-on, are orbiting between the trailers in the Rand parking lot, and the courthouse, and the Doubletree hotel. They entertain each other reading the tea leaves, teasing meaning out of when the jurors took breaks, what the jurors requested to have read back, how the jurors looked during the read-backs. It's like being locked in the White House pressroom with reporters speculating on the contents of a major presidential address, and the chief executive keeps postponing its delivery. It's like being in Moscow with the Kremlinologists musing about Russia after Yeltsin, and Yeltsin keeps refusing to die. It's like life: people who should know better, bullshitting about the unknown.
       There are rumors, of course, that start swirling with the suddenness of a Santa Ana wind blowing the clouds out of the Santa Monica sky. In short order, we hear rumors about Brenda Moran, the juror from the criminal trial who irritated all but the most die-hard Simpson sympathizers with her flip "If you want to get tried for domestic violence, go to another courtroom" quote. Moran has supposedly signed a letter recommending her agent, Bud Stewart, to the current jurors. Moran works for the Superior Court, and there are reports she used her access to the court computer system to ferret out the names and addresses of the current 12.
       But when Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki summons the congregation together on the third day of deliberation, the woman he dismisses has nothing to do with Brenda Moran. It's the only African-American left on the jury, and she's the mother of a secretary in the District Attorney's office, an interesting little fact she failed to divulge on her juror questionnaire. The judge replaces her with an Asian male alternate juror and orders the deliberations to begin again from scratch. "You are," he tells the newly constituted jury, "to treat the previous deliberations as if they had never happened." So every nuance that the campers imbued with such portent never happened, either.
       The other rumors circulating around the campground, involving racist comments supposedly made by a Hispanic woman, juror No. 6, eventuate in nothing. The defense has initiated the removal of the African-American, Rosemary Carraway, and now defense spokesmen start complaining about an all-white jury. Has the defense also leaked the report about juror No. 6?
       The crowd outside the court building, shrunk to virtually living-room size during the closing arguments, begins to grow again as the verdict keeps not happening. Instead of the one Jesus guy, there's a whole congregation of folks with elaborate signs advising that the Virgin Mary is alive and well in Bayside, N.Y. The arguments about the case echo again even as the sun rises over the nearby high school. People are getting up early once more to be "part of history."
       The herd in repose: All the cameramen and reporters that you normally see only when they're chasing after some news-maker, crowding him or her, shoving mikes and cameras in and around the face, are sitting on the courthouse lawn, or on the curb abutting the main driveway, reading papers, playing chess or Scrabble, talking on their cell phones. It does occur to me that I may be the only person in this square mile of Santa Monica who doesn't carry a cellular phone. If those things do cause brain cancer, I may be the key to the race's survival.
       Friday afternoon, as the jury is getting back up to speed, Fujisaki calls them into the courtroom. There have been rumors, even advice, of sequestration during the deliberations, but the judge announces that he's not going to put these people into a "lock-down." He presents this news to the jurors as evidence of his solicitousness for their welfare, but earlier, in denying a plaintiffs' motion for sequestration, his reasoning was more bottom line: Los Angeles County can't afford to pay the hotel bill. The judge does lecture the media in the jury's presence, asking the assembled newsies to be responsible and not seek out the newly dismissed juror for comments. While he's at it, he might as well ask them to stay away from the Doubletree bar.
       Then, turning to the jurors, he talks darkly of the danger of this trial unraveling and he heavies up on the usual admonitions: They are ordered to avoid all newspapers, all radio, and all television this weekend. "I know how hard this will be on you," he empathizes. It's as if he's compelling them to go without food or water for the 48 hours until deliberations resume. The jurors themselves don't seem too bothered, but Fujisaki is commiserating like crazy. These people aren't even having to miss Must See Thursday.
       Friday afternoon ends with a TV newswoman with close ties to the defense going on the record--or at least on cell-phone air--predicting a mistrial. Interestingly, by Monday morning, the defense is pulling out all the stops to get a mistrial--renewing a motion based on Carraway's deviousness and the obvious attempt by the District Attorney's office to "plant" a juror. If Bob Baker is to be believed, there's more planting going on in this case than in the Miracle-Gro test garden. The jury, he insists, has been tainted by the presence of Carraway during the first two-and-a-half days of deliberation. So he not only moves for a mistrial, but he also demands an evidentiary hearing, in which the judge quizzes all jurors to find out what Carraway may have said to them in the deliberation room. Knowing Fujisaki's eagerness to get this trial completed, and given the judge's seeming antipathy toward Baker, the attorney might as well have demanded that Carraway's influence on the jurors be expunged by group hypnosis onstage at Bally's in Vegas. The judge simply reminds the lawyer that the jury has been instructed to start over, so the dismissed juror's purported influence has been bulk-erased with the rest of previous reality. Motion denied.
       Tuesday, the new jury requests read-backs--Allan Park (just like the criminal jury), A.C., O.J. The theories proliferate, and everyone settles in for what looks to be a long week. My personal theory is that this jury is sitting in the deliberation room, its mind long since made up, playing checkers and Scrabble. They're just making the deliberations appear lengthy so that they can avoid a shit storm on the Today show.
       By the afternoon, the read-backs over, everyone in Camp O.J. sur la mer (as one trailer sign now styles it) is in a mood halfway between languor and torpor. An anchor friend is lounging on his set, talking dreamily of getting to the hotel within minutes and catching up on his sleep. And then, word comes through a crew member's headset: The jury has a verdict. The crew on the set scrambles into all-live-all-the-time mode, and I start running toward the courtroom. On the way, I pass a TV reporter I know who's standing in the courthouse parking lot schmoozing with a colleague. "There's a verdict," I tell her, and I'm instantly immersed in two contradictory feelings: one, the satisfaction that journalists enjoy of knowing something before somebody else; two, the terror that if the crew guy's headset has been somehow misinformed, this woman will forever resent me for having plunged her into a needless adrenaline bath.
       Within moments, the entire population of the camp has sprung into furious but purposeful action, as if everybody's last latté had just kicked in simultaneously. In the hallway outside the courtroom, the atmosphere is electrified, with the voltage gradually being turned up as the late-afternoon sun slides away outside our second-floor window. Adrenaline in a closely packed group is infectious. You can taste it up here. The contagion goes far to explain the nutty herd behavior you so often see from the press in this country, or from soccer crowds in Britain.
       We've been told there's a verdict, but no one knows when. Suddenly, a knot of people forms around Larry Schiller, who reads aloud a text message from his pager: verdict between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Source: O.J. Shortly, a hastily printed sheet circulates from the court's press office, detailing procedures for the verdict: Once in the courtroom, you're locked in until the entire process has been completed; no scrambling for the door after the first question has been answered; jurors will be made available for interviews in this room, lawyers in that room; pool arrangements; credentialling requirements. Schiller, who appoints himself an oracle amid the chaos, reads the press release and sees portents: "It's written," he says, "as if the verdict is 'not liable.' " I survey the assembled news-hounds, playing John McLaughlin to their group, demanding a prediction, quickly now. Their answers span the gamut; there is no professional consensus.
       Verdict time nears, and then passes. The Browns are reported coming up from Orange County, requiring that they take part in the most painful ritual known to Southern Californians: driving on Interstate 405 at rush hour. Just a brief taste of this torture has driven grown men, as well as me, into fits of yelling at their dashboards. The Browns' itinerary may keep them on the road until it's time for Conan.
       And now the anticipatory excitement starts blending with glee. The people covering this story, this tabloid mess so despised by the serious journalists back East--so despised that the word "Simpson" wasn't even mentioned in newspaper reports about problems at the FBI crime lab--these folks are wondering aloud whether their most longed-for karmic revenge is about to be visited on their high-falutin' colleagues: Will the verdict come in while President Clinton is delivering the State of the Union address and, if so, what will the guys in the control rooms decide to do?
       Over in the bar at the Doubletree, where the hotel's listening-room contingent is spending its waiting time channel-surfing the local and network coverage, journalists are betting on who'll get the big box and who'll get the little box. While the network stations give us both the dark Suburban cruising down from Rockingham and the chief executive receiving the applause of a House divided, the local stations have reporters, full screen, interviewing people in the crowd outside the courthouse or patrons in a South Central bar far less populated than the one we're in.
       You may have heard the verdict. It's read by the female court clerk, a young woman who's forever in the process of becoming blond, in a clear, strong voice. The verdict is in the form of eight questions, and "yes" to the questions means "no" to Simpson. After the first "yes," there's a whoop of exultation in the courtroom, and Fujisaki threatens to clear the room if the outburst is repeated. More disturbingly, perhaps, viewers who watch NBC's George Lewis reporting the verdict from just outside the other listening room, the trailer with the terminally rain-soaked ceiling tiles, can hear a whoop of delight issuing from the journalists and legal analysts within. A couple of people in the trailer later confirm that the mask of objectivity did slip for a moment. In the Doubletree listening room, silence prevails.
       And then, pandemonium. The defense team hustles into the hotel lobby, looking neither glum nor gleeful, and heads straight for the stairway to the parking garage. Moments later, carried along by a pop-star crush of cheering onlookers, grim local cops and jostling cameramen, the plaintiffs arrive. Kim Goldman dances for joy in the lobby. Fred Goldman hugs Petrocelli. Denise Brown jumps up and down, then comes to the pay phone next to mine and borrows a quarter (I figure she's good for it now). In the middle of the lobby, quiet amid the tumult, Sharon Rufo, ever the third wheel on the bicycle, stands talking quietly to her lawyer Mike Brewer.
       The next day, a sullen Bob Baker asks Fujisaki to cancel the punitive-damages phase, because Petro and John Kelly were on "all the networks last night," violating the gag order by saying they were pleased with the jury's verdict. The judge sighs his little sigh, reminds Baker that the jury is still admonished to ignore the media, and denies the motion. The torch is passed to his son, who argues a motion to prevent the plaintiffs from presenting evidence of O.J.'s continuing celebrity value. At one point, in response to Baker's complaint that bills from defense lawyers may be leaked, the judge smiles weakly, "Everything gets leaked in this case."
       "It sure does," Phil snarls. "Time magazine has everything we ever turned over to the plaintiffs."
       "Look who's talking," Petrocelli snaps back. "What about juror No. 6?"--referring to the leak of a letter from her sister, accusing her of "using the N-word."
       Phil walks toward Petro, pointing angrily at him. "You're the ones." The defense has been infected by the spirit of Leo Terrell, the lawyer who always shows up on television yelling an arm-waving defense of O.J. The judge thought he could avoid these antics by trying to run as closed a courtroom as the Appeals Court would allow, but he sighs. "It's so dumb," he says of a proposal to turn the legal bills, which the plaintiffs want to see to judge O.J.'s state of indebtedness, over to a referee.
       "Accusing us of lying is so dumb," Bob Baker pipes up from his slumping position.
       The judge offers the referee plan to Baker: "Take it or leave it." "We leave it," Bob Baker mutters. Then, Fujisaki sighs, "Turn the bills over to me."
       Yet, as losers go, these guys have slightly more grace than the teary Chris Darden, blaming the jurors for his failure. Baker doesn't blame the jurors. Clearly, he blames the judge.

Harry Shearer is a writer, actor, and director who has met both Kato Kaelin and Heidi Fleiss.