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Justice in the Shadow of O.J. Case : Courts: Santa Monica judge cites publicity over Simpson inquiry in postponing for two months a domestic violence trial with striking similarities.

July 10, 1994|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citizens who thought they were showing up for routine jury duty in Santa Monica recently found themselves vicariously caught up in the most sensational murder case in the country.

The issue was no casual debate around the water cooler. It unfolded in the jury box as Superior Court Judge Robert T. Altman attempted to gauge the impact of the O.J. Simpson case on an eerily similar murder case that was set for trial in his courtroom.

Though Altman ultimately postponed the trial, a day of jury selection highlighted potential difficulties in trying domestic-abuse murder cases in the coming months--especially if they bear a resemblance to the Simpson matter.

The defendant in the Santa Monica case is a black man accused of stalking and stabbing to death his wife, a white woman, soon after she called off their stormy eight-year marriage. Two small children were left motherless; their father fled from police.

Sound familiar?

It did to Altman, so familiar that the trial of accused wife-killer James Foster was put off for two months for fear of taint by association with the Simpson case.

Foster is accused of stalking and murdering his wife, Maria, in a parking garage as she arrived at her job at Los Angeles International Airport in 1985, then fleeing. Arrested in Mississippi more than seven years later for breaking into a girlfriend's home, he was returned to Los Angeles for prosecution on a first-degree murder charge.

As Altman analyzed it in court, the publicity glut could cut both ways: Sympathy for O.J. could rub off on the accused, or sympathy for victims Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman could harden opinion against him. Another factor in play is the widespread reporting on domestic violence, heightening jurors' sensitivity to the issue.

"The question is: Can the jury focus on this case and not the O.J. Simpson case?" Altman asked from the bench. "There are a lot of parallels . . . I don't want this man (defendant Foster) to be used as an example in anyone's mind."

To discourage that from happening, the judge quizzed jurors closely on the Simpson case, pointing out its obvious factual similarities to the Foster case.

What emerged was a conflicting picture. Most jurors insisted they were not engrossed in the Simpson case but then turned out to know all about it. Nearly everyone had heard Nicole Brown Simpson's tearful 911 call to police late last year.

Retired schoolteacher Kathleen Kemp was typical of jurors who said they had had enough of O.J.-media mania. "I've turned on A&E and Bravo lately," she said.

Although nearly everyone said they could be fair, there was an occasional show of the kind of sentiment visible daily around the Downtown courthouse, where sidewalk merchants hawk "Free the Juice" T-shirts.

"I find it hard to believe a guy I've idolized for 25 years is capable of doing something like this," said prospective juror Thomas L. Martin III. Earlier, Martin said that he was "really not interested" but "stumbled" upon news reports about his hero.

Attorneys in the Santa Monica case noted that people were eager to serve on the jury and paid more attention than usual to the often tedious process of culling a jury of 12 from a panel of several dozen citizens.

"You could hear a pin drop," said Foster's attorney, Deputy Public Defender James R. Bendat. "It scared me that people wanted to serve so much--almost as if to get a vicarious feeling they were sitting on the O.J. Simpson case."

The Foster case prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Loni Petersen, however, opposed delaying the trial, saying a fair jury could be selected.

The legal standard for impartiality is not what a juror knows or believes ahead of time, but whether prior information and prejudices can be set aside so that the case can be decided based on what is presented in the courtroom.

"It's no different than (someone) looking at a made-for-TV movie on the Menendez case, then serving on the jury," said Petersen's boss, John Lynch, who runs the Santa Monica branch of the district attorney's office. "You don't cancel something because conditions aren't perfect."

Lynch noted that another domestic violence murder trial is going on in the Santa Monica courthouse now.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Donna Wills, who is in charge of the district attorney's family violence unit downtown, agreed with Lynch, saying it is too soon for the Simpson case to adversely affect prosecutions. If anything, the publicity has been helpful, she suggested.

"Because of the media blitz, the sympathy is with the victim," Wills said. If Simpson is acquitted, however, that could become an impediment to prosecutors, she said, noting that acquittals in the McMartin Preschool molestation case gave defense attorneys ammunition that they used effectively in other molestation trials.

In the Santa Monica case, Judge Altman sought the advice of prospective jurors on whether it was fair to go ahead with the trial, telling defendant Foster and his attorney that it was their call whether to proceed in the glare of the Simpson media frenzy.

Though nearly everyone said to forge ahead, one prospective juror admitted, "I'm surprised the defense attorney hasn't said something to delay this case."

After hearing from those who would have sat in judgment of his client, the defense attorney did just that. "The right thing to so is to let things calm down," Bendat said in a later interview.

Foster was returned to County Jail to wait for two months. There, he is just another inmate, far removed from the protective custody status afforded Simpson, who, like Foster, is accused of killing someone he professed to love.

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