OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 1 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       Jurors being questioned about the first trial are like the proverbial blind men being asked to recall their impressions of the elephant. No.114, a 30ish black woman with glasses, didn't follow Trial 1 all that much, but she does remember "a confusion with the blood." Michael Brewer, representing Ron Goldman's mother, gets up for the first time since I've arrived to question this woman: "Did you ever form the opinion that Mr. Simpson was being treated unfairly on the Geraldo show?" Judge Fujisaki, reputed to run a tight ship, may need to tighten up still further if people are going to be interrogated on their feelings about CNBC's prime-time lineup: "Did you ever form the opinion that Mr. Grodin's hair is not entirely of his own growing?" Daniel Petrocelli, the Goldman family lawyer, challenges No. 114, on the grounds that she found O.J.'s courtroom demeanor to be "sincere," and that she thought the glove was planted. Fujisaki denies the challenge.
       No. 114 looked sharp and alert. Only when she opened her mouth did her value plummet. Her successor in the box, No. 116, went the other way: A black man in his late 20s in a light blue shirt, he turns out, under questioning, to be the most thoughtfully articulate person in the room, perhaps the building. His opinions are nuanced and complex--that is, he agrees with me. He has a theory that O.J. may well have committed the killings, but that the police may well have "augmented" the evidence. He acknowledges the pressure on any black person judging O.J.: "I'd feel the pressure, but it wouldn't affect my decision." He even starts looking and sounding like a slightly less-impish Isiah Thomas. And, just when all the attorneys and media people in the room are ready to give this guy the Juror of the Year Award, he holds up one finger to get the judge's attention, and softly points out that he hasn't yet been able to address his hardship status. He's a supervisor of disability claims for an insurance company, the office is moving to New Jersey, he doesn't want to move to New Jersey (a line that gets a laugh), and he has a possible new job lined up that would necessitate a move to Sacramento very soon. The sound you hear in the courtroom is that of hearts breaking. The judge makes it explicit: "I hate to lose you. You're excused."
       The news this night carries reports that Bob Baker has criticized the plaintiffs for repeatedly "dinging" African-Americans off the jury panel. But what I've seen is that defense and plaintiffs are getting their challenges approved by the judge when potential jurors, black and white, admit to fixed opinions, judgments that realign the burden of proof. The headline, though, is of racial divide. Jury selection would never be on TV, but we may be seeing a pattern set for the entire trial. Judge Fujisaki's determination not to become an Ito-style camera hog may encourage attorneys to insert provocative sound bites into each day's proceedings, and spin the country into concentric circles of paranoia.
       "How does somebody have no opinion about this case?" a journalist asks me during a morning-session break the next day. "NO OPINION?" As if on cue, when court resumes, juror No. 128, a 30ish black woman who reports she rarely looks at television, poor thing, says she has "no opinion" about what Ito used to call "the Simpson matter." Journalists aren't the only ones whose suspicions are aroused. All three plaintiffs' attorneys take turns trying to pry loose an opinion. Her interrogation takes 20 minutes. She's articulate, and once she overcomes her initial nervousness and starts speaking above a whisper, she even laughs at a couple of questions, chief among them a query about the truthfulness of Mark Fuhrman. No one challenges her.
       No. 129 virtually challenges himself. A stocky blonde guy in his 30s, wearing tortoise-shell shades all the way through his ordeal, he sighs; admits to being intimidated by the process; and is congratulated by attorneys on both sides for his candor. No wonder. "I want to say I wouldn't be a good juror for this trial," he announces. There is, he says, an "80 percent chance" that O.J. is guilty. Even the judge finds him more honest than most potential jurors. At that moment, does one only imagine a tremor of fear at the defense table? No problem. Fujisaki continues, "But he has a bias he's not able to shake. He's excused."
       It's hard to know what to be more on guard against: jurors trying to get selected, smelling book deals in the sea breeze, or jurors fearful of the backlash, the hounding, trying like any normal citizen to get out of a four-month commitment at $5 a day. No. 132 does a good imitation of the latter strategy. A thin, short-haired middle-aged black woman wearing glasses and a studded denim jacket (remember studded denim?), she has to have her questionnaire replies shown to her three times to, as they used to say in O.J. Land, refresh her recollection. Finally, she explains: "I should have said I had a bad headache that day, I hadn't eaten, and I passed out." Check, please. What makes her think O.J. is innocent? "Kinda what I feel in my heart." What problems with the evidence did she remember? "I can hardly remember what happened yesterday, but why was the blood not taken to where it was supposed to be taken?" Still the trapdoor doesn't open. "I thought," she tells Michael Brewer, "that O.J. conducted himself in the courtroom in a professional manner." If she's trying to escape, it doesn't work. Even after Fujisaki pursues her on "the heart question," and Petrocelli challenges her, the challenge is denied. Studded denim is, for the moment, in.
       Her interrogation does mark a signal change from the plaintiffs' strategy yesterday, when questions dealt with jurors' assessments of their ability to cast aside their preconceived notions in the face of evidence. Today, Michael Brewer conducts a seven-minute quiz with 132 on what she's heard from the media about the blood, the socks, the glove: fact or opinion? Baker tries to object, to no avail. And as the questioning focuses more on people's recollections of facts and opinions, the proceedings begin to resemble a campfire, around which each member of a tribe sits and in turn tells his or her own version of a venerated legend. He remembers the kid who drove the limo, she remembers the dog, he remembers that "something is wrong. Not necessarily what Dr. [Henry] Lee said is wrong, but something is." Over two decades, the details of Elvis Presley's life and death have become abstracted from reality, the grain of sand in the culture's mythic pearl. The same thing has happened to the details of a grisly double murder in Brentwood, in one-tenth the time.

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