OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 19 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       Everybody's got a shtick. The female bailiff walks into Department Q some 15 minutes late this morning, and follows the usual routine of admonishing us to be quiet and remain seated as Judge Fujisaki enters the courtroom. But for her, the spoken word is not enough. Youthful and stout, curly brown hair spilling onto the shoulders of her uniform, she feels the need to illustrate her mention of the judge by indicating the direction of his chamber, in a two-armed gesture straight out of the Flight Attendant School of Mime.
       The day's business begins with the judge--he's the one above the engines--dismissing juror No. 59, a black man in his early 30s, for a "medical condition." As the roomful of candidates awaits the calling of the next juror number, we are treated to the first of the morning's many sidebars.
       For any true devotee of O.J. Downtown, the televised criminal trial, sidebars were the all-too-frequent excuse for CNN to take breaks to sell Depends, or for legal analysts on the less-mercenary (or popular) channels to speculate on what the gang could be jawing about this time. There was even a "No Sidebars" T-shirt that enjoyed a brief flurry of success on Temple Street. This sidebar provided the opportunity for Jerianne Haizlitt to make last-minute checks on who's in and who's out--given the seating crush, there was much grumbling outside about certain networks trying to swarm the room. She walks past the press rows, checking faces against her list, and looking vaguely apologetic: "I hate this. It's like being a schoolteacher." Once she's done, as the sidebar continues, we're treated to a strange, almost unrecognizable sound. It's called silence. The clock on the wall above the audience door doesn't tick, the air conditioning doesn't grind or whir, the jurors don't chat, the newsies are too chastened by Jerianne's last check to whisper, and there are none of the audio-visual crutches--commercials, on-hold music--that normally protect us from the ominous void, the art of no noise. Want to meditate? Just one more reason to hang with the O.J. gang.
       Juror No. 107 doesn't last long. A white male in his late 20s, he's barely seated in the box before Daniel Petrocelli elicits the fact that No. 107 is a friend of Jason, O.J.'s son by his first marriage.
       "If Jason testified in this case, how would you feel about it?" Petrocelli asks.
       "I don't know," No. 107 answers. "I think I'd be able to judge it fairly, but it would be difficult."
       "Difficult in what way?"
       "Well, my fear is that I'll have an effect on Jason in some way."
       Fujisaki, perhaps incredulous that the candidate has gotten this far, has to double-check: "You say on your questionnaire that you've known him for 13 years?"
       No. 107 nods. Sidebar. Silence. The attorneys break from the huddle, plaintiffs and defense smiling. No. 107 is excused.
       No. 103 is a chunky white male in his early 30s, short brown hair, blue shirt. Despite the expressions of surprise in the press that this West Side jury pool is not as lily-white as expected, the luck of the draw this morning is bringing up one white aspirant after another. Petrocelli, who, as Fred Goldman's attorney, always goes first in juror questioning and almost always is the only plaintiff's lawyer to do any interrogating, covers some basics--would No. 103 assume that anything a police officer says is automatically true, would he give the plaintiffs an advantage in this case?--and gets the appropriate negatives in response. Then it gets interesting.
       "Your partner has a background in psychology, and has been involved in the area of domestic violence, is that correct?"
       "Yes, but at the moment, he's in the film business."
       One of the fascinations of the O.J. case has been its ability to function as a panoramic snapshot of Los Angeles life--Rosa Lopez to the first-date couple to the ambitious sports doctor to the designer of the workout video. A few years ago, I sustained an eye injury while playing basketball. When I got to the emergency room, the examining physician asked me if I'd like to read a spec script he'd written for St. Elsewhere. I suppressed the urge to yell, "Fix the eye first, then I'll read." The next day when I went back for a checkup, the admitting orderly gave me a cassette of some songs his band had just cut.
       "By the way," Petrocelli says--and we've learned from the criminal trial that "By the way" out of a lawyer's mouth introduces a question he's been crouching in the bushes all day waiting to ask--"did you also used to work in the entertainment business?"
       "Yes."
       "You've worked for and around high-profile people your whole life."
       "Correct."
       "And by high-profile people you mean people in the entertainment business."
       "Yes." (Maybe he worked for the doctor that fixed my eye.)
       "Would that affect your ability to judge this case fairly?"
       "No."
       Jurors were asked on the third questionnaire to give their impressions of the principals in the case. No. 103 described O.J. as "desperate," an impression based on the low-speed Bronco chase, Ron Goldman as "a nice person," and Nicole Brown Simpson as "a lovely person, scared." Nonetheless, he maintained these impressions would not interfere with his ability to be fair and impartial. But the clock is ticking, if not audibly, on No. 103. As Judge Fujisaki thoughtfully strokes his left-hand fingers with his right hand, No. 103 says his tolerance for domestic violence is "zero." Under Bob Baker's questioning, he agrees that on the questionnaire, when asked if physical violence in a relationship is ever justified, instead of just checking the "no" box, he wrote "Never" in big letters with three exclamation points.
       "Isn't it true that as you sit here today [one of Baker's favorite phrases] you have immense respect for law enforcement?"
       "I would say that's a little bit of an exaggeration." The skids are greased. Baker asks for a sidebar--there will be a sidebar after each juror is questioned, so that the remaining jurors do not hear the attorneys discuss the merits and demerits of their peer in the box--and No. 103 is excused. Leaving the huddle, John Q. Kelly, attorney for the Brown estate, walks with a lopsided gait. I've never noticed it before. Is he doing the O.J.?
       The sad story of the day is next. Juror No. 293 is a black man in his 60s, with a pronounced stoop to his shoulders as he enters the box. He's wearing glasses and a dark brown sweater vest. Last time he was in here, he and Petrocelli discussed the matter of DNA, and the attorney returns immediately to that subject. "After we had our little chat about DNA, did you look into it?" Uh-oh.
       "Yes, sir. I have the nomenclature here." Some stifled giggling in the press rows. No. 293 pulls out a piece of paper. "I have a paragraph here that explains it. It means de-oxyribonucleic acid."
       "You're doing better than I could," Petrocelli says, but this guy's a goner.
       "Excuse me," the judge intercedes, "but jurors are not supposed to do any research. I commend your scholarship, but you did violate a court order."
       "But sir," the condemned man answers, "I already had this in my computer. I just had to go get it." He puts the piece of paper away. "I can explain this without reading it."
       "You can't go outside the trial process for information."
       "I didn't do research. I'd already known this, I just had to refresh my memory." It's obvious this man thought voir dire was a quiz, and he was just doing some innocent cramming. Who feels like a schoolteacher now? For No. 293, after another sidebar, class is dismissed.
       As juror No. 8 takes his place, the judge gets uncharacteristically chatty--the schmoozing impulse is catching. "You're probably in the hottest seat in the house." As the laughter subsides, No. 8 tops Fujisaki with a tart and well-timed, "No comment." These words, on both sides, are to prove prophetic.
       No. 8 is a bald black man in a blue work shirt, late-middle-aged, with a honeyed baritone voice. Petrocelli opens tough, and his toughest questioning is often directed at people he wants on the panel. "Let's start with an area that's a little sensitive, domestic violence. Have you ever had any physical altercations?"
       "We're speaking of domestic? No." A slight chuckle from the room, imagining bar fights or road rage. "I have been called a walker more than once. I walk out." No. 8 has been struck, on the arm, three times by wives or girlfriends.
       "Were these heated arguments?"
       "Yes."
       "You were struck in the process of holding the other person away."
       "Yes."
       "You never struck a blow."
       "No. My mother would jump up and down."
       "What do you mean when you said you called yourself a walker?"
       "I was in the service for 20 years. I don't need any more violence in my life."
       The man has a brother and a nephew working as "federal commissioners," and one of his ex-wives retired after 26 years with the Wichita Police Department. The only discussion about this case he had with his brother is when No. 8 received his jury summons, and his brother explained to him the difference between civil and criminal trials.
       Petrocelli finishes with a flourish: "Do you see any racial issues involved in this trial?" This is the kind of softball Bob Dole got in the second debate, only No. 8 knows enough to swing. "This could be kind of a long thing. I have two nephews, a niece, my brother, and myself who are all interracially married. I don't see you as a white man. I see you as a man."
       "I appreciate that," Petrocelli replies.
       Baker, who opens each inquiry with the blandly reassuring phrase, "I just have a couple of questions for you," actually does have just a couple of questions. Within minutes, the defense team announces it accepts the jury "as constituted." The plaintiffs challenge Juror No. 96, and, at Baker's request, court adjourns to Fujisaki's chambers.
       Many of the media people have little diagrams of the jury box, with Post-its for each juror--there should be a Home Edition of this game--and they start preparing to remove 96. Meanwhile, O.J. strides outside into the corridor, and begins signing autographs for a few folks gathered on the other side of the metal detector. One of the county security guards at the machine even lends him a pen, a symbol of the reportedly easy relationship between O.J. and his guards. Here is one dramatic difference between a civil and criminal trial: In Department Q, the defendant is not taken away in handcuffs to a holding cell during breaks, he's out here with the rest of the folks, scribbling "Peace to you. O.J." just as he did on the plane to Chicago on the morning of June 13, 1994. Standing in the corridor, taking in the scene, is O.J.'s bodyguard, a well-built white guy in a double-breasted suit that everyone in the press rows calls "Stallone."
       When court reconvenes, the jurors are absent. Bob Blasier gets up and moves for a mistrial, on the ground that the prosecution has been using its peremptory challenges (called "pre-emptory" by much of the broadcast media) to systematically exclude black jurors. This is the same charge Baker made here a couple of weeks back, the same charge the Dream Team made during jury selection two years ago. Tactically, the move always works. The plaintiffs could, if they wished, point out that the defense has used its peremptory challenges to get rid of--imagine this!--white jurors, but that would only reinforce the p.r. point the defense is trying to hammer home. Legally, the judge is dubious. After Blasier and Dan Leonard for the plaintiffs make their initial arguments, Fujisaki looks at Blasier.
       "Your job is to convince me that you've made your case. I think you're going to have to try harder to convince me. Why don't you show me so that we can get on with this case one way or the other?"
       He says this with a smile. Be careful of Fujisaki's smile. He only brings it out of his quiver when he's impatient, or worse, with an attorney. It is, for a lawyer in his courtroom, the Smile of Death.
       In this colloquy, we learn why the plaintiffs challenged No. 96. In her questionnaire, says Leonard, "she wondered why Mark Fuhrman found all the evidence at Rockingham. She also said Mr. Simpson looked 'too confident' to be guilty of a double homicide, and she wondered why he was handcuffed when he wasn't yet a suspect." Blasier argues a bit more--only African-Americans have been asked whether race is involved in this case or their opinions about Mark Fuhrman--and then the anti-Ito pulls an Ito.
       "I don't think," Fujisaki says, "that the defense has made a prima facie case. However, in an abundance of caution, I'm going to ask the plaintiffs to explain their peremptory challenges." The court decisions covering this area say that as long as a challenger can provide explanations that are reasonably related to his theory of the case, the suspicion that racial picking and choosing is going on can be dismissed. Dan Leonard goes down the list. ("123 hoped and prayed that Mr. Simpson did not do it ... 174 did not believe one person could have committed this crime, and her reaction to the slow-speed chase was concern for Mr. Simpson's well-being ... 28 lives with her father, works for her father, and her father purchased Mr. Simpson's video, but there's more: she dated a pro football player ... 121 testified that Ron Shipp was a traitor ... and that Kato Kaelin was an indecisive moocher ... 316 tried to get a job with a police department, his brother was arrested for drugs, and he was extremely dissatisfied with the results of a lawsuit he was party to, saying that everyone in the suit was lying.")
       Blasier has just a peep left in him: "Our point is that these are pretextual reasons." The motion is denied. But "an abundance of caution" may be the most ominous words spoken in this courtroom today.
       No. 342 sets the reporters to conferring in whispers with each other: Is this middle-aged, dark-haired man with a mustache white or Hispanic? Inquiring minds want to know. Baker, as usual, has just a couple of questions for him.
       "When you said on your questionnaire that Mr. Simpson had been given every consideration by the judicial system, do you think he was given special consideration that you or I wouldn't get?"
       Mr. White-or-Hispanic says, bluntly, "Most people don't have trials that go on for six months."
       Baker points out that the prosecution alone took six months. For whose benefit does he make that point?
       Mr. W-or-H continues: "Mr. Simpson just had more resources than you or I have."
       Sidebar: Attorneys come back smiling like the Cheshire Cat Bar Association. The plaintiffs' attorneys confer with Fred Goldman, then Baker moves to excuse the man who, whatever he is, isn't black.
       Luck of the draw, continued: No. 118 is a short 30ish white woman in a beige paisley dress. In her questionnaire she described O.J. as "an ex-football player acquitted of a murder he committed." She clarifies: "I said probably." She designs computer systems. She's got an analytical mind. She is probably back at work as you read this.
       And still they come. No. 227 is a gray-haired white man with a trim white beard and mustache. He wears glasses, and speaks in a husky low tenor. He does not, he tells Petrocelli, put celebrities on a pedestal. He is not asked if he puts them on any other form of furniture.
       No. 227's dad was a policeman. Baker asks if there were a lot of police over at the house as he was growing up. There were not. No. 227 doesn't say it, but there were probably more policemen hanging out at O.J.'s pad over the years than at this guy's house. 227 believes interracial marriages are "impractical," but explains this means they just add "additional problems, perhaps" to the marriage situation. No. 8, with two interracial marriages to his credit, gives 227 a sidelong glance on hearing this.
       The plaintiffs confer. The defense, with O.J., confers. The plaintiffs accept the jury, as does the defense. Before the clerk can swear the jurors in, half the media people in the room race for the door. It's like the movies. Unlike the movies, once outside the courtroom, they're all yakking into cell phones.
       Hours later, when TV broadcasts reports that juror No. 8 is "in trouble," the fixation on race leads analysts to conclude that losing this black man will be bad for the defense. From the vantage point of the courtroom, though, this fellow was the plaintiff's dream juror: an anti-violence guy with relatives in the feds and interracial marriages up the wazoo. He ends up being dismissed for what he acknowledges is his "drinking problem," but even with the personnel changes in the jury box that ensue, one fact stands out: This is what we were originally led to expect, in the newly minted racial euphemism--a "Santa Monica jury."
       It may be a while before I see this courtroom again. The week ends with a notice that "assigned seating" begins Monday, and I'm so far down the list I get the bends just looking at it.

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