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LOCAL ELECTIONS / 41st ASSEMBLY DISTRICT : Kuehl Blasted for Mailer Showing Nicole Simpson

November 03, 1994|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assembly candidate Sheila James Kuehl is being accused by her opponent of exploiting the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson for political gain while at the same time poisoning the jury pool in the trial of O.J. Simpson.

The charges stem from a campaign brochure that Kuehl, a Democrat, sent this week to voters in the 41st Assembly District, which runs from Santa Monica to the San Fernando Valley.

The front page of the letter-sized mailer carries a color reprint of a Newsweek cover photo of Nicole Simpson, with a smiling O.J. Simpson at her side.

The mailer's headline says, "Before it made the evening news, before it made the cover of Newsweek, before it became a 'Movie of the Week' . . . Sheila Kuehl was leading the fight against domestic violence."

Kuehl's Republican opponent complained that Kuehl, a nationally known expert on domestic abuse, appears to be "climbing over the bodies of battered women in an attempt to gain votes."

Michael Meehan further said that Kuehl breached confidentiality by telling a Baltimore Sun columnist two weeks ago of Nicole Simpson's calls to a Santa Monica battered women's shelter hot line in the late 1980s.

Revealing the identity of hot line callers is against the policy of the shelter, called Sojourn, said Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the umbrella agency that runs the shelter.

But Kuehl, who heads Sojourn's board of directors, defends the disclosure. Confidentiality rules do not apply because Nicole Brown Simpson is dead, she said.

"After someone is dead and there's an investigation, I didn't feel it was confidential anymore," said Kuehl, a former child actor who played Zelda in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."

Kuehl denied that her campaign piece exploited Nicole Simpson's death, saying the point of the mailer was that helping battered women has been her life's work, which included years of lobbying in Sacramento for domestic abuse laws.

Others say Kuehl could have found a less inflammatory way to communicate her expertise.

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said the mailer was in bad taste. "I'm appalled," Jeffe said. "It's out of bounds for any candidate to use a victim of crime for political purposes. . . . I do not understand this decision politically or ethically."

The mailer also puzzled political pros because Kuehl is believed to be far ahead of Meehan, a reserve deputy sheriff, law student and political newcomer with minimal campaign funds.

If elected, Kuehl would become the first openly gay or lesbian state legislator in California.

"It's very, very poor political judgment," said Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "It's a safe election. You don't need any negative publicity."

Meehan said Kuehl, an attorney, should have known better than to send out the sort of material that Superior Court Judge Lance Ito has ordered potential jurors in the Simpson case to avoid. Questioning of a second pool of prospective jurors began Tuesday.

But Kuehl argued that the Newsweek cover is several months old. "I don't think you can ruin the jury pool with something they've already seen," she said.

Acting UCLA Law School professor Richard H. Sanders, a legal ethics expert, said attorneys are generally expected to behave more carefully in commenting on ongoing legal matters than the general public.

"It's commendable of her (Kuehl) to champion the issue of domestic violence, but perhaps she hasn't thought through carefully the side effects of this approach to publicizing the issue," Sanders said.

UCLA Professor of Law Peter Arenella said he found nothing ethically amiss with Kuehl's mailer, which was factual. "Mr. Simpson was in fact convicted of domestic violence," Arenella said.

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