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Working People : Order in the O.J. Courtroom: : 'No Incidents, Nobody Hurt'

October 24, 1994| Three months ago, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. George Smith was named supervisor of the 62-person Court Services Division unit that provides bailiffs and security for the 36 Superior Court rooms in the downtown Criminal Courts building. Smith is a 21-year veteran. One of his first assignments was protecting the judge in the 1975 trial of Bill and Emily Harris for the Patty Hearst kidnaping. He now finds himself responsible for the orderly running of the O.J. Simpson courtroom, including possible sequestration of the jury. He talked with JAMES BLAIR about preparing for a complicated, high-profile trial. and

You better start planning ahead.

With the coverage that this case has been getting we've been asked to look at what's needed (for) a sequestered jury of 20 to 24 people (including a panel of alternates). You've got to think about how they are going to react with one another, locked up for an extended period of time, especially if you're talking about doing it over a holiday period.

Logistically, if the jury is sequestered, you want someplace that's comfortable and roomy but keeps them gathered in the same group. The optimum is to keep them as closely confined as possible and yet give them some space. However, you don't want them breaking up into isolated groups, splintering into little factions. They have to be kept together because, essentially, they're working. You want to make them feel comfortable because they're going to feel like they're under a microscope already. It's a tricky thing to do. We don't want to intimidate them in any way. All of the deputies we're going to use for this have good people skills--a lot of patience.

We've surveyed several different hotels that would fit our criteria--distance from the court, number of rooms, how big the jury's going to be. A hotel may be available at one time but not at another and then we need a secondary. All these things have to be considered. Once we're sure the hotel meets our security needs, we'll make a recommendation to the judge and see how it fits into the per diem of $90 a day per room and $30-$40 for meals the county allows.

We're planning for any special needs they may have--if one misses their children or has business papers they have to sign or somebody dies in the family; or if one gets sick and they have their own special doctor. We have provisions to help move them, supervised, so they can continue as best they can.

From past experience, there have been times when juries have been taken to amusement parks, movies, shopping. All these activities would have to be strictly monitored. You would have to assign a good number of deputies and ensure they weren't getting any information other than what the activity called for. You can't allow them to come in contact with newspapers, TV or radio.

I know there are other influences, but when they look at us it's important for us to really separate ourselves from either the prosecution or the defense. You don't want to make it look like everytime you talk to a prosecutor you're all happy and friendly and when you talk to a defense attorney you've got this hardened look about you. You do your job professionally in there. You don't want these jurors ever getting the idea you're implanting some thought in their heads.

My main (security) concern is not so much O.J. doing something as somebody doing something to O.J. or these very popular attorneys. Usually you have a threat (of) the individual on trial doing something whereas in this case you (may) have something on the outside coming.

Then there's the situation with the prosecution. I've seen members of the public in the courtroom take offense, become incensed, if Bill Hodgman or Marcia Clark starts making a point in argument. A disruption? A threat? Who knows; but we have to be ready for it. I have a deputy in the back of the courtroom and during opening arguments I'll probably put a few more in. That place is going to be packed. You're going to have families of the victims and defendant. And the statements made at that part of the trial could be a little more volatile. The deputies have to keep order in that courtroom--make sure the proceeding goes undisturbed.

Everything I do and the decisions I make are based on the information those deputies give. That's what makes this work. If something's bothering them, if they feel unsafe, there's no hesitation to request additional manpower. They're going to get the backup they need.

At the end of the day I just hope we have been able to carry this whole process through--to provide security that will give Mr. Simpson, the prosecution and Judge Ito a trial with no incidents, nobody hurt, no breach of security that jeopardizes the outcome of this case.

Sounds boring, but that's the way I want to see it come out.

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