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The State : Simpson's Anxiety: The Limelight Reduces Him to a Mere Mortal

October 30, 1994|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner is past president of the Los Angeles County Criminal Bar Assn

There is no constitutional right to a 15 Nielson rating and an 11% audience share. Indeed, contrary to the core belief systems of America's tabloid editors and TV news directors, there is no mention of rating points in the Bill of Rights. There is an amendment, the sixth, entitling a defendant to a speedy and public trial that is fundamentally fair. So will the tabloid press allow O.J. Simpson a fair trial?

Fat chance.

The Simpson trial is already out of control. The media, especially television, is not just an observer but an active and increasingly destructive participant. The conduct of the ever more hysterical tabloids, both print and television, has created a situation similar to that described by the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty, which normally applies to physics: Their very coverage of the trial has altered it, slowing down the proceedings, affecting who sits on the jury and daily interfering with the attorneys' tactical decisions.

One night last week, the fourth most-important story in the United States was that Simpson was busted by jailers for having an unauthorized yellow highlighter with him when he returned from court. Also airing on television were features on the overhead light in Simpson's Ford Bronco, an interview with someone who worked at a Los Angeles Police Department towing service, yet another explanation of DNA testing, which may or may not provide a "genetic fingerprint," and a critique suggesting that there are only two people in the world who believe that detectives were overtaken by "beneficent" motives when they entered Simpson's Brentwood home without a warrant the night of his ex-wife's murder. By coincidence, those people are Kathleen Kennedy-Powell, who presided over the preliminary hearing, and Lance A. Ito, the judge in the criminal trial.

Then there were the Chung-Povich interviews with Nicole Brown Simpson's self-styled "best friend," despite a request from the court that they wait, because the high standards of television journalism required that Maury Povich and Connie Chung toss slow, fat questions to a "writer" whose veracity is questionable. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will undoubtedly create a new Emmy category: "Best Willing Suspension of Disbelief To Obtain Ratings."

When the media's attorneys reflexively assert "the public's right to know," they do not mention the "media's power to interfere" in the trial process.

Thus, Chung, sitting in a studio 3,000 miles away, stopped the Simpson trial for three days so Ito could explore whether her interview had affected jury selection. This is not journalist as observer but journalist as participant.

Howard Stern is beginning to look like a bastion of media sanity.

The reason the defense seeks a speedy trial for Simpson is simple. The former football great is a man toward whom large numbers of Americans show affection, because, as an athlete, film star and huckster, he has spent a lot of time in our homes, albeit electronically. Insistent and unrelenting press coverage of the case threatens to recreate the "so what?" desensitizing phenomenon that distorted the first Rodney G. King beating trial. The ceaseless replaying of the beating videotape transformed the horrible into the mundane, the ghastly into the banal.

What the defense fears is that Simpson will, in the unblinking TV--read: public--eye, fall from the status of an "immortal" to what Bertold Brecht called the "usual man in the usual place in the defendant's box."

The King case lurks just below the surface for another reason. When Robert L. Shapiro, Simpson's lead counsel, said race is not an issue, he was being politic. When Simpson co-counsel Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said that race invariably plays a part in every criminal trial in Los Angeles, he stated what everyone in the courtroom and media has been thinking for months. The racial theme remains deeply embedded in 1994 Los Angeles.

Prosecutor Marcia Clark may have wanted to put every potential juror on a polygraph not simply because she was anxious about media contamination. The jury pool is also 37% African American. Bringing Simpson Downtown for trial was like taking King to Simi Valley.

Do blacks have a potential hidden agenda? Yes. Do whites have a potential hidden agenda? Yes. It is still not unusual for older white jurors to refer to black defendants as "those people." Nor is it unusual for black jurors to scrutinize a police officer's demeanor more closely than a white juror, regardless of the officer's race. It all depends on which end of the stick one is used to feeling.

The relationship between the courts, the police and the African American community is permeated by suspicion. That grim fact of life lay behind defense charges late last week that prosecutors were treating black jury candidates differently from others.

All this as we are about to enter upon the darkest month of the television year--the November Sweeps. Perhaps "journalism" can delay the trial another month--after Povich finds the hairdresser to Simpson's chiropractor who heard from an agent that Simpson engaged in Satanic rituals.*

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