OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 5 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       These days in Santa Monica are largely shrouded in fog. Not a San Francisco fog, with shapes and boundaries, but an overarching light gray vagueness, too light to be gloomy--lighting techs would call it hanging a double silk over the sun. It's the perfect weather in which to set the jury-selection process for the O.J. civil trial, for light-gray vagueness pervades these proceedings as well, even on a Tuesday afternoon when, as it sometimes does, the sun makes a tardy appearance and sane people head outdoors.
       For vagueness, take juror No. 247, a pale young white man with longish brown hair tucked behind his ears. He speaks in "ums" and "uhs," and occasionally, words intervene. He thinks O.J. is "probably guilty," and plaintiff attorney Tom Lambert says, "You wrote on your questionnaire that some police officers didn't use the correct procedures." No. 247 agrees, but adds that "I don't know what the correct procedures are."
       Interviewing these potential jurors is a peel-the-onion process. The outside of the onion, usually, is a thin layer of "no opinion." No. 247 starts out acknowledging that he only watched coverage of the original trial on the news "once or twice," but soon allows that he knows the first jury wanted the limo driver's testimony read back to them. "In that regards (sic), I really thought they were gonna, um, come back with, uh, you know, a guilty verdict."
       Questioned by Dan Leonard, a youngish, dark-haired lawyer for O.J., the juror now reveals that he saw part of the limo driver's testimony, "because I remember, uh, what he looked like. I remember he said the Bronco wasn't there when he arrived, but, uh, that it, um, that it was there when he left."
       As Leonard pushes along, Judge Fujisaki tents his fingers in front of him, then pulls his arms back in a wide arc, re-tents, re-arcs--a grand gesture of impatience that finally finds its voice: "Mr. Leonard, you're just talking to yourself really. We're using a lot of time just hearing you display your erudition." The judge says all this with a smile, but the air goes out of Mr. Leonard's pants just the same. He finishes up with a pro forma: "Can you promise my client won't be at a disadvantage with you as a juror in this case?" No. 247 looks earnest, and says, "I promise." That you can take to the bank, as long as the bank is run by Jim McDougal. For now, 247 is in.
       The potential jurors first see the courtroom, Dept. Q, at the end of the second-floor hallway, when they're brought into the jury box in groups of five to receive an admonition from the court clerk. They then troop out, and reappear, one at a time, from behind a door that leads to a holding room. Each time the door opens, I feel an irrational sense of anticipation, like a kid hearing the mailman approach. The prevailing mood among the media folk, while we're waiting to get in, is that the questioning has been slow going, tedious. One must always remember that they have to be here; I am here by choice, and I'm free to come and go. Still, this afternoon's session seems to move far more briskly, a demonstration of the maxim about how work transpires in the shooting of movies: "It's MGM in the morning, and Corman in the afternoon."
       That's not to say that the dialogue is rapid-fire. When juror 248 starts being interrogated, there are more, and longer, pauses than in a Polish production of a Beckett play. The judge asks 248, a middle-aged white man with a curly brown fringe of hair and a graying short beard, to look at his answer to Question 2:
       "Would you explain that answer? Is that your state of mind about this case?"
       "It's not my state of mind, but at one time I did say that."
       We're not let in on the secret, but, "All right, what is your state of mind about this case?"
       The clock gets tired of hearing itself ticking while 248 composes his answer: "I agree with what the court decision was in the case."
       Fujisaki's not happy. "You're going to have to explain that to me. So your state of mind is that Mr. Simpson is not responsible for the deaths? Is that what you're trying to tell us?"
       Pause. World War III is declared, and fought. "Yes, I guess so."
       "So," the judge concludes, "are you repudiating what you wrote down in answer to Question 22?"
       Pause. A millennium or two go by. "Yes."
       A couple of questions by Daniel Petrocelli elicit, slowly, the fact that 248 doesn't think O.J. is guilty because, "I don't think he could do that, I don't think he could kill the mother of his children," and that he, 248, would have difficulty setting that view aside. More quickly, apparently, than anything else in 248's life, he's excused. Noteworthy is that, contrary to popular expectation, this is a white man excused because of the tenacity of his belief that O.J. is innocent. Whatever else he may or may not be, 248 is today's Stereotype Buster.
       An older white woman doesn't even get her proverbial 15 minutes (actual average time of questioning is about 20); she is excused based on her work on the questionnaire. Either she holds incredibly strong and immutable opinions, or she's got really bad penmanship.
       No. 249 is the object of some debate in the press rows. Is he Hispanic? His coloring suggests so. He's 50ish, dark-haired with a gray dab at the forehead, a mustache, a golden stud in his right ear. But when he starts to talk--and, I'm sorry, Johnnie Cochran, but sometimes you can tell--his soft baritone carries a slight lilt of a Southern black accent. On a dozen notepads, the pencil removes one "O" (other) and adds one "B."
       No. 249 is a man of strong, well-articulated opinions. "I just didn't understand how a killing of this type could be done without getting a great deal of blood on you. I didn't see where Mr. Simpson had time to clean up." He followed the trial daily, "mostly on Channel 5," the local station that was the choice of true trialheads because it never abandoned its policy of gavel-to-gavel coverage, even during the dog days. Daniel Petrocelli follows up:
       "Are you saying that because bloody clothing was not found, that therefore Mr. Simpson is not guilty?"
       "That's right."
       "What," Petrocelli asks, "about the glove at Rockingham?"
       "My opinion is that nobody could be that dumb, to leave one glove at the crime scene and take the other glove to his home, so my opinion was that it could have been planted." And 249 dooms himself, if in fact not serving on this jury could be called doom, the same way that many auditioners do, stumbling over the question of why we are still here: "To me," he says, "it's like double jeopardy. I don't know what they want now."
       "Would you agree," Petrocelli advances, "that it would be difficult for you to sit as a juror on this case, given the fact that in this case, let's assume you would see pretty much the same evidence that was presented in the criminal case?"
       "I think it probably would be."
       As soon as he's escorted back to the holding room, the word "stipulate" echoes around the counsel table. Bye-bye, 249.
       No. 251, a thin, middle-aged black woman in a blue patterned jacket and white blouse, has the same problem. Bob Baker, O.J.'s lead attorney, wants her on this jury, and tries to help her tiptoe through this minefield:
       "Now, you say on this questionnaire that you can set aside your opinions that Mr. Simpson is not guilty, and that evidence may have been planted. Do you have any reservation whatsoever about your ability to do that?
       "No, because I would listen to the evidence, and something might be different."
       "Because you'd be looking at the evidence from the vantage point of the jury box, and not through the eye of the camera, isn't that right?"
       She pauses, then very quietly says, "Yes." But, the next step is quicksand.
       "You're aware," Baker prompts, "that the plaintiffs have the right to bring this case?"
       "That's what I don't understand. I always thought that if you have a trial and they find a person not guilty, then that's it."
       Baker twice tries to explain to her that the outcome of a civil trial, if the defendant loses, is money damages rather than punishment, and each time ends his explication with a prayerful "OK?" All he gets in reply is "um hm."
       "In terms of the justice system we have, they're allowed to do this, fair enough?"
       "Um hm."
       "Can you assure us that you'll be fair and impartial to both sides?"
       "Yes, I'll try to."
       The tumbrel is waiting. Baker tries to stave off the inevitable. "You gotta give me your unqualified assurance."
       She smiles, as if even she's embarrassed at being coached. "Yes."
       Baker fights for her, brings up another juror, already into the pool, "who has 15 items of evidence that he thinks prove Mr. Simpson is guilty." But the judge says, "Her answer to the last question, in her heart she feels he definitely didn't do it, is her overriding emotion. She's excused."
       Of course, all the attorneys use their questions to thinly veil arguments on behalf of favored jurors and against ones they regard as tainted. Some, like Daniel Leonard, don't do so with sufficient grace or deviousness to fool the judge. Baker and Petrocelli, who handle most of the work for their respective sides, get away with it far more often.
       Friday morning is still fog-shrouded. There's a friendly black man with a "Jesus Loves You" banner who tries to engage me in conversation as I walk in, and there's a homeless-looking white man with little cardboard "NOT GUILTY" signs taped all over himself who lurches toward me as I leave, but the only real circus in Santa Monica right now is the Cirque du Soleil a block away at the pier, and even they don't have animals.
       Today's crop of five includes three men with mustaches. Has anyone calculated the breakdown of opinions between the covered upper lips and the nakeds, or are we all too obsessed with racial divisions to bother?
       Mustache Man No. 1, actually juror No. 367, is stocky, almost beefy--if there is a distinction. He's middle-aged, with dark wavy hair, a prominent cleft in his chin, and he's wearing a plaid shirt. He opens with the now-almost-standard "haven't formed a firm opinion on the case." Is the jury school that all these people attend located just upstairs from the nearly ubiquitous traffic schools around Los Angeles? No. 367 says he has a "fairly open mind. ... I'm not positive that he's not guilty." That double negative entangles even Bob (DNA) Blasier of the O.J. team momentarily, until the judge applies some rhetorical creme rinse. Blasier, with the familiar pinched tenor voice and the new touch for this round, an after-surgery back brace that leaves telltale outlines under his beige jacket, then hones in:
       "You said in your questionnaire that you remember that O.J. was left out of the recital."
       "Well, to be honest with you, that's something that I got out of the movie."
       Blasier lets that go, but I'm wondering: which movie? There were, as I recall, at least two TV-movie versions of this case, and I, for one, would like to know whether this potential juror is tainted by the semifiction of Fox or CBS. Blasier has other fish to fry:
       "Do you think that constitutes a motive for murder?"
       "Oh, God, no."
       "You feel," Blasier continues, going for the kill, "you feel strongly about the DNA evidence?"
       "Yes," No. 367 responds, "I'm an analytical thinker, and that's science."
       "Did you follow the testimony on DNA closely?"
       "No, it was pretty confusing."
       If they kicked people off the jury for internal contradictions, this guy would be out in the lot looking for his car, but no.
       "Is it fair to say you've pretty much made your mind up that there was no conspiracy to plant evidence in this case?"
       "Pretty much."
       Minds made up are supposed to be disqualifying, but no.
       "You bought a Bronco watch. You still wear it?"
       "Oh, no. I just bought it for a collectible."
       And, perhaps most ominously, when Blasier asks him whether he ever entered discussions at work about the O.J. case, given the fact that he turns out to have an opinion, 367 says he didn't, because "I don't like confrontation." Fortunately, they don't have confrontations in the jury room because, despite Blasier's heated challenge, this guy's in.
       No. 369 is a young Asian man in a gray button-down shirt. He's never expressed an opinion on the case, he says in his moderately accented English, because "I didn't have enough information, didn't follow piece by piece, I say maybe guilty, maybe not." Bob Baker introduces himself as usual, and when 369 asks him, courteously, how he's doing, Baker goes almost giddy:
       "I'm doin' pretty great, 'cause it's Friday."
       Then, after the juror says the press gave him the impression that Mark Fuhrman lied on the witness stand, Baker asks,
       "Do you know how much evidence in this case Mark Fuhrman touched?"
       "I think," 369 answers, "the grove."
       The court reporter--who's selling the transcript for 50 cents a page on the Internet, God bless her--doesn't quite understand the answer.
       "The grove," he repeats. As in, the "broody grove." He is the Stereotype Reinforcer of the Week.
       Nobody motions to remove him, although the judge gets faked out by a tentative Petrocelli move.
       "I guess not," Petrocelli explains when queried, "although Mr. Baker started to make me think about one."
       "I just wanted to bring him to the edge," Baker responds. Must be the Friday in him.
       Now come two diametrically different black panelists, a young man who lives in a world where virtually no O.J. information got through, and a young woman marinated in the trial's juices. He is No. 373, short-haired, wearing a tan shirt and pants. He's a postal worker, and neither he nor the two co-workers at his station--"we work at the end of the belt, dumping sacks"--had emotions about the verdict, and they never talked--or talk--about the case: "Most of what we discuss is sports." The fact that Mark Fuhrman was in a courtroom this week for a perjury charge has made it through, but little else. He's never discussed the O.J. case with his wife, his sister, his brother. He doesn't watch the news. (Beefy 367 didn't either, "because it depresses me and makes me want to leave L.A.") No. 373 doesn't watch because his three kids--there's an older one, by "a different relationship" who doesn't live with him--are always watching cartoons or Nickelodeon.
       Attorneys for all three plaintiffs--the Goldman family, Sharon Rufo (Ron Goldman's mother), and the Nicole Brown Simpson estate--take turns trying to crack this egg, to no avail. His ignorance of the case is as seamless as the fog. In this business, ignorance is bliss. No. 373 moves ahead.
       Juror 374 comes from an entirely different planet. A thin, young black woman with light brown hair wearing a scoop-necked black knit top, she followed the trial from "the very beginning" in Time, Newsweek, and on television, watching reruns at night. Tom Lambert, Petrocelli's partner, takes dead aim at her:
       "You really don't believe there was enough time for Mr. Simpson to commit these murders, do you?"
       "One person? No."
       "You really accepted the idea that there was a rush to judgment, didn't you?"
       "I really thought they should have looked at other suspects."
       She also thinks Robin Cotton, one of the prosecution's DNA experts, "talked to the jury as if they were younger than they are," and, most crucially, she would have trouble believing any testimony by Mark Fuhrman.
       Bob Baker, who is tall, tailored, tanned, and smoother-talking than a deejay in a Maui bar, takes a pass on questioning 374, assigning the task to his son, Phil. Maybe this is how the legal tradition is passed on, father handing impossible cases to son. It does make you wince a bit for the kid, seeing his less-than-convincing renditions of his father's moves, leaning against the railing of the jury box as tentatively as a duckling striking out for deeper water away from the brood. This water is too deep.
       "If you were on this jury," he asks her, "could you discard what you know from the media?" His voice lacks the almost hypnotic resonance of his father's baritone, and the result resembles Paul Harvey Jr. trying to sound like Paul Harvey.
       "If I had to," 374 answers. "I'm not sure."
       Baker tries in a series of questions to elicit some shred of fairness from her on the subject of Fuhrman, and it's during this colloquy that Fujisaki puts his arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling, as if he can't bear to watch. Finally, Baker surrenders.
       "Let's talk about another question," he says, to laughter from his colleagues. This is like watching a hazing ritual practiced by the legal fraternity.
       No. 374 is excused.
       Journalists, Roger Ailes is reminding us as he tub-thumps for the new Fox News Channel, are supposed to be able to put aside their opinions while they do their jobs. Maybe that's why most of them in the courtroom of Department Q are so skeptical about the jurors' ability to do the very same thing.
       On this afternoon, the fog never lifts.

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