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ON THE TOWN

WHOSE TRIAL IS IT ANYWAY? : Jurors in the Simpson Case Face a Few Tribulations of Their Own

October 23, 1994|Patt Morrison

Locked up except to go to court. Closely supervised family visits. Restricted reading matter. This isn't O.J. Simpson. It's his jury.

From the first gavel, the big jury question beyond "Did he or didn't he?" has been "To sequester or not sequester?"

Sequester ( si-kwes-ter ) v., from the Latin, meaning "to immure 12 strangers in a moderately expensive hotel at taxpayer expense until they agree on two matters: that the accused is either guilty or not guilty and that they never want to lay eyes on one another again."

Sure, there are people for whom six months in an L.A. hotel is the fulfilled dream of 10 lifetimes, but do we really want to import jurors from Bosnia?

Sequestration supposedly keeps jurors from being swayed by news coverage of the case on which they sit in judgment. In a 500-channel echo chamber backstopped by Internet gossip, that insulation is even harder to achieve now than it was a quarter-century ago, when the president of the United States pronounced Charles Manson guilty before the jury did. Bailiffs rubbed kitchen cleanser on the windows of the bus so that jurors wouldn't see the MANSON GUILTY, NIXON SAYS headlines on the way "home" to the Ambassador Hotel.

For a simple evening of TV, let's say, these days a bailiff has to be in charge of the channel changer because even with a movie as innocuous as "It's a Wonderful Life"--which is possible in a trial that will likely stretch beyond New Year's--you never know when local news will sneak in a "FISTFIGHT OUTSIDE O.J. COURTROOM! FILM AT 11!" teaser.

And uncensored newspapers or magazines would be off-limits as well: no sports magazines ("Bills Pray for Former Teammate"), no true-crime journals ("Handguns or Knives as Murder Weapons? Death Row Denizens Debate") and no women's publications ("Battered Wives: How to Avoid Making Nicole Simpson's 911 Call.")

The Manson jury did take some excursions, however, to Disneyland and Palm Springs. After such enforced chumminess, I'd rather go to the laundromat than spend one instant hearing "It's a Small World (After All)" in the company of the only 11 people in the world I'm allowed to talk to.

Even with partial sequestration, I'd worry less about news "pollution" than about 12 people being driven around the bend, suffocating in some airless, hideously paneled courtroom every day for months, treated to the world's most able lawyerly histrionics and to a Sominex DNA seminar on RFLP testing, which until now I thought were the letters on my gear shift. And then, every night, they'd go "home" to a nice, warm mint on the hotel pillow.

Thanksgiving? No carving-knife jokes, please. Christmas and Hanukkah? Mail-order gifts. Something special for the bailiff. New Year's Day? Watching the Rose Parade seems safe, but Trojan fans are out of luck when it comes to bowl games: You-know-who's name might come up.

The Manson jury was sequestered for 217 days. That's almost a whole year on the planet Venus. Almost a full-term pregnancy. Nearly a third as long as the siege of Leningrad and about a quarter as long as the Kennedy Administration. As long as summer in Needles.

There are less onerous sorts of sequestration--shorter but maybe more intense for that.

The Reginald Denny jurors were sequestered for only 15 days, and they knew one another only by number. Still, they argued and threatened and swore. One of them, a juror perturbed at being away from her boyfriend for the fortnight, reportedly ran down the hotel hallway, screaming, "I can't take it anymore!"

The Manson jury began and ended each day of deliberation with silent prayer. Before this trial is over, maybe this jury will be praying, too. For guidance. For a book deal. For a T-shirt slogan--"Free the O.J. Twelve."

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