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Ito Dismisses Jury Prospects Exposed to Media

October 27, 1994|JIM NEWTON and ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Struggling to find jurors for the O.J. Simpson murder trial who have obeyed a strict order to steer clear of all media, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito dismissed prospects in rapid-fire succession Wednesday after they admitted to some exposure to radio or television in recent weeks.

In most cases, that exposure was brief and apparently innocent: One man listened to the radio, but only when his clock radio woke him up one morning. One woman turned on her television to watch an old Barbara Stanwyck movie, while another watched a soap opera on a Spanish-language station. All were sent home.

They and other panelists were removed for failing to abide by an unusually strict admonition directing them to avoid all media and bookstores, an order Ito imposed earlier this month after the release of a splashy book purporting to detail the last months of Nicole Brown Simpson's life. O.J. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to murdering his ex-wife and Ronald Lyle Goldman, both of whom were slashed and stabbed to death in Brentwood on June 12.

Although Ito has said that he is not looking for "hermits" or "Rip Van Winkles" to weigh evidence in the case, he has summarily excused every prospective juror who failed to abide by his Oct. 18 order.

One prospective juror who was dismissed Wednesday said he had overheard mention of a lie detector when his clock radio woke him one morning. (Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark, in a hearing one day last week, said she believed that many potential jurors were lying to get on the panel and added that she wished she could hook them up to lie detectors. She later said she was joking about the lie detectors.) Another man, a 66-year-old retiree from Alhambra, said he had watched television cartoons with his grandson one day.

He too was dismissed. So was a man whose entire exposure to media since Oct. 18 consisted of overhearing a snippet of a news report about the Senate race in Massachusetts. He heard that while sitting in a bar where a television was on, the man said.

As the questioning of jury candidates continued, still more were excused--by day's end, 13 had been questioned and eight dismissed, all but one over exposure to media. One admitted to having watched a Spanish-language soap opera on television; another acknowledged that she "slipped" and watched the Stanwyck movie on a cable station.

When Ito asked that woman if she had thought about his admonition when she was watching, she admitted that she had thought the oversight harmless.

"I sort of slipped," she said. "I thought it wouldn't hurt. It was just an old movie."

Legal experts said the process reflects the extraordinary difficulty of abiding by Ito's requirement that the panelists avoid every type of media in a media-saturated society.

"It's almost impossible for prospective jurors to suddenly transform themselves into social hermits," said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor. "That's exactly what Judge Ito's order demands that they do."

Arenella and other legal experts said Ito had little choice but to excuse jurors who disobeyed his admonition, however innocently. But the rigorous standards that Ito has imposed have taken their toll: In several days of questioning, almost half of the 57 jury candidates interviewed so far have been excused.

A few of Wednesday's candidates were allowed to remain after they insisted that they had studiously adhered to the order. But it has not been easy, some admitted.

One woman, a 41-year-old City Hall office manager, said she had taken great care to avoid exposure to media, going so far as to avoid visiting a neighbor who watches a lot of television.

"I've had to really isolate myself a lot," the woman said. "It's real quiet, and I don't like being quiet."

Although the woman complained that it "feels like forever" that she has been part of the Simpson jury pool, Ito asked her if she could hang on a little longer, at least until she and other remaining juror candidates return Nov. 2.

"Yeah," she responded weakly.

At the Nov. 2 session, the two sides will be allowed to exercise peremptory challenges, removing jury candidates with whom they feel uncomfortable without having to state their reasons why.

When prospective jurors first gathered in late September, they were asked to avoid media coverage about the case, an admonition that is common in high-profile cases and one that most of the panelists in the Simpson case have said they were able to obey. But when the book about Nicole Simpson was released last week, Ito strengthened his admonition, directing the jury candidates to avoid all media--television, radio, newspapers and magazines--and to stay out of bookstores.

It is that stricter order that is highly unusual and that has proved so difficult for many of the panelists to obey. As one man said in trying to explain his inadvertent exposure to media last week: "It's in the air."

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