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Prosecutors Targeting Black Jurors, Simpson Team Says

October 28, 1994|ANDREA FORD and JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After a series of testy exchanges between a prosecutor and a prospective juror in the O.J. Simpson murder trial Thursday, Simpson's attorneys accused government lawyers of treating black jury candidates differently than others.

It was the latest defense attack in a case in which race has long loomed as an issue, and prosecutors immediately denounced it as a calculated public relations tactic.

The defense comments appeared carefully choreographed, with Simpson's two lead attorneys simultaneously addressing reporters on different floors of the Downtown Criminal Courts Building.

"If there is a pattern, we'll be asking the judge to look into it," Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of the lawyers, told reporters on the 12th floor. "We're really concerned about the tenor of the questions and the way they go after certain jurors."

Meanwhile, in the lobby, Simpson attorney Robert L. Shapiro was telling the rest of the press corps: "It implies an insidious effort to try to get black jurors removed for cause because they are black, because they have black heroes, and because O.J. Simpson is one of them. There's no other reason."

In addition to the issue of how black prospective jurors are being questioned, defense sources accuse prosecutors of using a disproportionate number of their challenges so far to seek the removal of black panelists.

Prosecutors have long said that they hope to impanel a racially mixed jury to hear the murder case against Simpson, who has pleaded not guilty to the June 12 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Simpson is black; both victims were white.

Of the 33 panelists who remain in contention after in-depth questioning, 18 are black. Eight are white, three are Latino, two are Native American and two are of mixed race.

On Thursday, prosecutors declined to respond directly to the latest attack by Simpson's lawyers, but accused their adversaries of trying to score points with the public.

"This appears to be just the latest in a series of efforts to try to manipulate public opinion," Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman said. "In the midst of jury selection, I think that is very inappropriate and unfair."

Although defense attorneys have privately been discussing the issue for several days, it flared up publicly Thursday after an unusually pointed exchange between Hodgman and a 71-year-old black South-Central man who had difficulty remembering the answers he gave on a juror questionnaire last month and who became increasingly defensive as the prosecutor questioned him.

When the man said he had heard something about a polygraph, Hodgman asked: "Do you know what a polygraph is?"

The man took offense at that question and others posed by Hodgman, at one point exclaiming: "You're pumping me as if I'm on trial. You're sort of riling me."

Cochran, a longtime admirer of Hodgman, nevertheless sharply criticized his counterpart for the way he treated the man and another prospective juror earlier this week. In the earlier exchange, Hodgman pressed a black woman with questions about her paranoid schizophrenic brother until she broke down in tears, prompting Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to intervene and apologize.

"I don't think I'd make a juror cry," Cochran said Thursday. "I don't think I'd make a juror say: 'I'm riled up.' "

Defense attorneys also were angry about the spirited, and ultimately successful, campaign that prosecutors waged to have another black woman excused from the panel after she expressed doubts about some aspects of the prosecution case but insisted that she could be fair despite those doubts.

After that woman was excused, Shapiro was furious, saying: "My blood is boiling."

Cochran said he too was bothered by the prosecutors' determination to have that panelist removed: "They finally got her excused. She said she could be fair, but they persisted and got her off."

Although he declined to take questions about jury selection, Hodgman said prosecutors were not attacking anyone.

"We are proceeding very, very carefully and very, very cautiously," he said. "From the very beginning, I've sought to have fairness and humanity for our individual jurors."

The man who was at the center of Thursday's exchange was allowed to remain on the jury panel, but three others were excused. Since questioning of the prospective jurors began, 63 have been interviewed by the judge and lawyers, and 30 have been excused.

Most of those who have been dismissed have admitted violating Judge Ito's order that they avoid all television, radio, newspapers and magazines--and that they not so much as enter a bookstore. Ito imposed that order Oct. 18 after the release of a salacious book that allegedly tells the story of Nicole Simpson's final months.

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