O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 28 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       I'm a chocaholic, and the Tobler factory just moved into the neighborhood. I'm a wine aficionado, and somebody opened up a cut-price Barolo store at the end of the block. As it happens, I'm both a chocaholic and a wine aficionado, but these are merely analogies for what's actually happened: I'm an O.J. trial junkie, and the civil proceeding, Trial of the Century II, is taking place within walking distance of my house.
       So from time to time I plan to stroll by the courthouse, poke my head in, go through the first-floor metal detector and the second-floor metal detector, and check out the progress of the world's most expensive rewrite.
       Or, alternatively, I will repair to the nearby Doubletree Hotel to listen to the closed-circuit audio feed. Today, as I intensified my efforts to gain access to jury selection, I learned that Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki has ruled that the room in the Doubletree where the audio feed can be heard must be secured by armed off-duty deputy sheriffs, and that the media organizations using the room must absorb the cost of the packing beef. He has made it impossible for the public to follow Chapter 2 of the world's best-known one-chapter tale, and now he is trying to scare away the public's surrogates with a security tab in the mid four figures. At this moment, I'm reminded of what a lawyer friend declared hours after Fujisaki was named to succeed Alan Haber as the judge presiding over the civil trial. Said lawyer friend called me from his car to say that, in his nearly two decades of practice, this was the "dumbest fucking judge" before whom he'd ever appeared.
       But then came news from a court functionary that seats inside the courtroom were not today's hottest ticket and, within minutes, I am sitting on a hard bench outside Department Q waiting for a break in the proceedings so that the security guard could let me in. The interim is spent listening to a woman on the bench next to me, a self-described "recovering attorney," explain to the security guard what motions in a civil trial are. The break comes without warning, and I am admitted into what would have become, had Fujisaki been less camera-shy, this year's most familiar indoor space. This is the part of Trial 1 that was off-limits to the junkies: jury selection. In Lance Ito's court, this process was not televised, and we were allowed to either cheer or be appalled by those jurors only after the verdict came in and they sprinted into the waiting arms of Larry and Oprah. So this is virgin territory even for one such as I, who actually made the schlep downtown to watch firsthand as Andrea Mazzola, a Los Angeles Police Department criminalist, whispered her way out of America's heart.
       But the trial, and its language, appears to have affected all of us. The first potential juror I see questioned, No. 103, insists upon his insulation from Simpsoniana. But he does so with these words: "Everything I've heard about this case is hearsay." Did civilians throw "hearsay" around so casually before the murder on Bundy Drive? But No. 103, a 30ish white man in the restaurant business, makes the cut, and gets sent out to the jury room to fill out another questionnaire. (This day's questioning regards the form they've already filled in, probing their opinions on and exposure to the case.) Fujisaki's first words in my hearing are in response to a plaintiff's objection to a defense question: "Sustained. Let's get on with it." To one of O.J.'s attorneys who's not yet famous, the judge snapped, "Read the questionnaire." Fujisaki, unlike Ito, is clearly not running for Most Popular Judge.
       In fact, only one of the defense attorneys is famous. Look, there's Bob Blasier! Chief Defense Counsel Bob Baker, gray-haired and as tanned as if he had never spent a day in a fluorescent-lighted courtroom, is getting there, but he probably still has to wait for a table at Drai's. The three main lawyers for the plaintiffs, Daniel Petrocelli, John Kelly, and Michael Brewer, are all familiar to hard-core RiveraLive viewers.
       No. 107 also claims minimal Trial 1 exposure: This young white man from Brentwood with the Citadel haircut says he was in Vegas on the day of the verdict and had more important things to do that morning than watch TV. But even his responses seem mediated by a strange familiarity with the ways of the courtroom. When asked if he's prejudged any part of this case, his initial response is: "May I have a moment?" I half expect him to request a sidebar.
       Speaking of the courtroom, this is a jewel box of a chamber. Four of these could fit in the average DMV office. Sitting in the second row of spectator seats, I'm closer to the judge than I was to the lawyers' table in Ito's friendly confines. I wish I knew my woods better, but I'm going to say the paneling on the bench and up the walls is either walnut or maple. The Great Seal behind the judge's head is positively medium-sized. There is that familiar Sony monitor beside Fujisaki (on which he can read instantaneous transcripts), and a couple of the defense attorneys have laptops before them, but this is a low-tech courtroom. The only demonstrative prop on hand thus far is a tan-colored chalkboard near the jury box. Not an Elmo in sight. On top of a couple of file cabinets to the left of the bench sits a familiar icon of Santa Monica life--a kelly-green plastic newspaper-recycling bin, a reminder to the assembled media of the grave temporality of their labors.
       There have been rumors around Los Angeles that the presiding judge who assigned Fujisaki to this case did not have a warm spot in his heart for Bob Baker. So I'm wondering whether to read anything into this exchange, after Baker lobs an objection:
       Baker: May I continue, sir?
       Judge: I didn't say you couldn't.
       The judge then looks around the room with an "is it me or is it him?" look.
       A 30ish white woman admits, under Baker's questioning, that he'd have to disprove her opinion that O.J. is guilty. But the judge re-questions her, and lets her back away from that conclusion, then disallows Baker's motion to remove her for cause. Next up is No. 111, an old black man. "There's very little on this form," Baker says, scanning 111's questionnaire. Fujisaki addresses the potential juror: "Sir? Hello?" The man doesn't respond. "I'm excusing him as incompetent."
       I'm in the room for one of the day's two headline events. Shortly after a break, the judge asks, "Is Bill Robles in the courtroom?" Robles, the courtroom artist, has in fact just left the room, and a CBS producer and a bailiff scramble after him. They shouldn't have bothered. The artist had submitted two sketches for Fujisaki's approval. He later said on TV that they were faceless renderings of jurors. Rather than guidance, the judge gives Robles the back of his hand: "I issued a very distinct order, which has been sanctioned by the Court of Appeals, against the depiction of any jurors. Don't you understand English?" Robles is banned from the courtroom. He dares to ask whether his banishment is permanent. It is. The media folks all around me have learned to keep poker faces in Fujisaki's realm. One of them even tells me, "Don't make eye contact with him," as if the judge is a New York subway mugger. You can feel the vibe from the press, and the vibe is that Robles has indeed been mugged.
       And then comes the afternoon's comic relief, a middle-aged blond white woman, Juror No. 112. Watching potential jurors troop in for inspection is a reminder of what I call Shearer's Law: The hardest work most of us do is maintaining the appearance of normality. No. 112 has taken off early from work today. She is bright and quizzical, but the word "evolution" has a way of showing up in every sentence she utters, and her hands flutter searchingly beside her face as she talks: "I've seen a lot of cops and medics around L.A. I even became a medic to get an inside view, and these police were Keystone Kops." Fair enough. The Goldman family attorney, Petrocelli, starts opening the floodgates: "Your questionnaire is filled with philosophies and ideas. Do you think you can be impartial in this proceeding?"
       She starts off, "I'd like to be able to say I hope I can," and by the end of her answer, we are treated to a rare and wonderful sight in a courtroom: someone who's too verbose even for the lawyers.
       Bob Baker tries questioning her in his normally calming baritone: "You say on your questionnaire that you think the legal system is a circus. What do you mean by that?" You can hear the eyes roll in the spectator section as she starts in: "In my time mind, this is like the Roman Empire. America is an empire, like Rome." Baker tries to pursue this line of thought, but Fujisaki, for once gentle, says, "I don't think you want to." The woman is excused, and our time minds return to Santa Monica. An adjacent reporter whispers to me, "You picked a good day."

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

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