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Judge Refuses to Probe False News Leak in Simpson Case

October 15, 1994|JIM NEWTON and ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, wrestling with media coverage of the O.J. Simpson case and its potential impact on the jury, denied a defense request Friday for permission to conduct a far-reaching investigation of how a false report made its way onto television.

That report--a KNBC Channel 4 story saying DNA tests of blood on socks found in Simpson's bedroom genetically matched Nicole Brown Simpson's--has emerged as a major point of contention in the case because prosecutors and defense attorneys have both said it was incorrect. After first standing by the story, KNBC later acknowledged that it had erred.

Ito ruled that the story has been so widely denounced that it no longer poses any danger to Simpson's ability to receive a fair trial.

"I don't see that it is prejudicial to the defendant at this time, and the court declines to proceed further in this matter," Ito said.

In fact, the judge has cited the KNBC report in his discussions with potential jurors in order to emphasize that they should not believe everything they read or hear about the case.

The ruling headed off the latest aggressive attack by defense attorneys, who had hoped to use the hearing to ferret out the "source and purpose" of leaks that they said had compromised Simpson's rights. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the June 12 murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.

Through the hearing, Simpson's lawyers had hoped to show that the KNBC report was more than inaccurate. They have suggested that police gave the information to KNBC knowing that it was false but expecting to manipulate future tests on the socks in order to falsely implicate Simpson. Although they have produced no evidence that such tampering has taken place, the defense attorneys have made the accusation in court documents and arguments.

Robert L. Shapiro, one of Simpson's lead attorneys, said that police were perpetuating a "self-fulfilling prophecy" and that he wanted to take testimony from three employees of the LAPD Scientific Investigation Division, four employees of KNBC or NBC, LAPD Cmdr. David J. Gascon and a deputy district attorney.

"We do not want to accuse anybody. We do not want to destroy anybody," Shapiro said. "We want the opportunity to conduct an inquiry."

But Shapiro's request was vigorously contested by media lawyers and an attorney appearing on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ann Egerton, representing KNBC, said the station's reporter and president would invoke the state's shield law that protects journalists from revealing their sources.

Moreover, Egerton accused Shapiro of hypocrisy, citing news reports that appeared to be generated by defense sources. An article in the New Yorker magazine leveled an attack on Detective Mark Fuhrman and quoted unnamed defense attorneys calling him a racist and a "bad cop" who might have planted evidence in the case.

Douglas E. Mirell, an ACLU lawyer, also objected to proposed questioning of the KNBC staffers, including reporter Tracie Savage, who was in the courtroom. He said the proposed questioning was collateral to the main issues of the trial and would not reveal anything of substance.

Meanwhile, Shapiro agreed to release Gascon from his subpoena after the commander, who is the LAPD's chief spokesman, said he would sign a declaration denying that he was the source of the KNBC report and stating that he did not know who leaked that information to the station.

After hearing those arguments, Ito ruled against the defense, at least for now removing the KNBC report and its fallout from the list of far-ranging issues that have cropped up in the Simpson case. Media issues will soon return to the top of the court agenda, however: Ito has scheduled a Nov. 7 hearing to decide whether to bar cameras from his courtroom for the duration of the trial.

With the case receiving enormous national attention, attorneys for both sides have complained that the task of finding an impartial jury is difficult, and Friday's jury selection session continued to move ploddingly.

Only five prospective jurors were questioned during a morning session in which Shapiro for the first time actively took part in the inquiry.

One person was removed from the panel Friday. The potential juror, a 68-year-old South-Central Los Angeles man, had repeatedly ignored a bailiff's admonitions to stop reading a booklet titled "Instant Pain Relief" as he sat in the courtroom audience.

When Ito asked why he insisted on reading, the man replied: "I was way ahead and knew what the answer was going to be. I don't take it serious."

Shapiro tackled the task of questioning jurors with vigor, his sharp, sometimes abrasive style in contrast to co-counsel Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s softer touch. When Shapiro pressed a 65-year-old woman from West Los Angeles on how she would feel if she had been unjustly accused of murder and had a jury with someone like herself on it, the woman became clearly flustered.

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