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Simpson Judge Won't Let Media See Victims' Photos

August 13, 1994|JIM NEWTON and ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Strongly criticizing coverage in the O.J. Simpson case, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito on Friday rejected media requests to view photographs of the murder victims--which he said would "inevitably lead to graphic, sensationalistic, lurid and prurient descriptions" that would influence potential jurors.

Simpson, meanwhile, spent the day recuperating from a Thursday morning hospital procedure in which swollen lymph nodes were removed from under his arms. Robert L. Shapiro, the football star's lead attorney, said after meeting with his client that Simpson is nervously awaiting test results that will reveal whether the swelling was caused by cancer or by one of many less serious ailments.

In his order, Ito allowed reporters to view other photographs of the crime scene, and he released one transcript from a closed-door session during last month's preliminary hearing. According to that transcript, attorneys on July 8 discussed phone records regarding the time of a call to Nicole Brown Simpson, but they could not agree on when that call was placed.

The time of the call could prove important because it is the last time that she was known to be alive. Prosecutors contend that she and Ronald Lyle Goldman were killed sometime before 10:30 p.m. on June 12, and a witness testified that he found her dog wandering the neighborhood about 10:35 p.m. Simpson's attorneys maintain that the killings could have occurred later, about 11 p.m., while he was home preparing to leave for the airport.

Although Ito's order allowed the release of the five-page transcript, the thrust of his action was to limit coverage that, by most accounts, has exceeded that of any other murder investigation in U.S. history.

"Most of the news media accounts have been factual," Ito said in his order. "However, there are glaring examples of rank rumor and speculation, prurient sensationalism and outright fabrication that are the result of competitive commercial journalism."

Ito also sharply criticized the electronic news media for using microphones in court to eavesdrop on a conversation between Simpson and Shapiro, which Ito said "violated the sanctity of the attorney/client relationship." He added that he would "not hesitate to completely terminate in-court media coverage" if a similar violation occurs.

Given the extent of the media coverage, Ito said allowing reporters access to the photographs of the victims before the trial would create "a substantial probability, and in this case a virtual certainty, that the defendant's right to a fair trial would be similarly prejudiced."

Asked later about his order, Ito said he had sought to balance the "legitimate interests" of the media with the "sensibilities of the victims' families."

"The problem I have to worry about is the jury pool," he said. "I don't think the L.A. Times, the New York Times or CNN or the New Orleans Times-Picayune . . . would show (the pictures of the victims' bodies). But others would."

Shapiro said the order was "consistent with what we thought the ruling would be and with the legal arguments we made in court." In fact, the media request for access to photographs and transcripts was opposed by prosecutors and defense attorneys, a rare point of agreement in the contentious case.

Legal experts generally commended Ito's attempt to contain the coverage of the case, even as they warned that it will be difficult to control media discussion in the face of such enormous public interest.

"I think Ito's trying to do the right thing," said Harland W. Braun, a noted criminal defense attorney who represented Officer Theodore J. Briseno in the federal civil rights trial of the officers who beat Rodney G. King. "These cases are extremely difficult, and the main problem he's got is trying to reconcile having a fair jury trial with the 1st Amendment."

Ito's struggle is not a new one: In an era of intense media competition and the emergence of tabloid television shows--with their splashy, sensationalistic approach to news coverage--judges often are forced to grapple with the need to shield prospective jurors from information that could skew their verdicts and at the same time protect the public's right to observe judicial proceedings.

In the federal King trial, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies urged lawyers not to discuss certain matters outside his courtroom. While jury selection was under way, he also imposed a gag order on Braun, in part to bar the outspoken attorney from publicly impugning the motives of prosecutors in the case.

Davies was only partially successful. While lawyers generally heeded Davies' admonitions, Braun fought back against the gag order, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals quickly overturned it. In the wake of the appellate court ruling, Braun voluntarily stopped commenting on issues regarding the probable composition of the jury, but he quickly resumed his attacks on prosecutors.

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