A predominantly black group of eight women and four men drawn from across Los Angeles County was sworn in Thursday to serve as the jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, capping five weeks of prolonged and detailed questioning.
The 12 people may not ultimately be the panel that weighs Simpson's fate, as they will be supplemented by 15 alternates to be selected in the coming weeks. Should anything happen to any of the original 12 panelists--from illness to exposure to publicity in the high-profile case--the affected juror will be replaced by an alternate, allowing the trial to go on.
Even though Thursday's development does not mark the end of jury selection, it constitutes a milestone in a process that began Sept. 26 with each jury prospect completing an exhaustive, 79-page questionnaire. Questioning of the jury panel began and ended in irony: The first panelist called in for questioning by Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito was juror number 32, the number Simpson wore throughout most of his football career; the last one put in the jury box Thursday worked for 25 years for Hertz, a company that Simpson has represented as a spokesman for years.
Ito thanked the panelists for their patience and expressed his deep faith in the jurors, who will be asked to set aside any preconceptions about the case and decide whether Simpson is guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman on June 12--a charge he has steadfastly denied.
"I want to welcome you to the league of judges because that's what you are now," Ito said. "I know you can rise to the occasion, despite the unusual circumstances. I know you will do a good job in this case, and I trust you."
In the Simpson case--where a black sports icon is accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend, both of them white--race and domestic violence have emerged as important background issues and the makeup of the jury has been the subject of intense scrutiny.
Some analysts believe blacks may tend to support Simpson or to be skeptical of law enforcement officials. And prosecutors may attempt to introduce evidence of spousal battery in the case, a line of argument that some legal experts say may be most compelling to female jurors.
The jury was agreed upon Thursday after each side used 10 of its 20 peremptory challenges, which allow attorneys reject any prospect with whom they feel uncomfortable, as long as race or gender is not the reason. Simpson's lawyers used their challenges to excuse five whites, one Latino, two Native Americans, one black and one person of mixed race. Prosecutors excused eight blacks and two whites from the pool--which, like the jury, was predominantly black.
The 12 people selected Thursday include eight blacks, one white, two Latinos and one man who is part Native American and part white. That is a far higher percentage of blacks than live in Los Angeles County, and one that legal experts said should hearten Simpson's attorneys.
"That is just the luck of the draw," Robert L. Shapiro, one of Simpson's lead lawyers, said of the racial composition of the jury.
The members of the panel come from throughout Los Angeles County--three from Inglewood, two from South-Central Los Angeles and the rest from communities such as Burbank, Long Beach and Norwalk. Six said they had a high school education or less. Two went on for vocational training or community college, and two more either attended college or have university degrees.
On the issue of DNA testing, which is expected to figure prominently in the case, just one juror finds it somewhat reliable, according to the questionnaires filled out by every jury prospect. The other 11 said they had no opinion on that topic.
Two said they had experienced domestic violence either as children or adults. And one recalled being so frustrated in a domestic relationship as to consider using violence at one time.
Every juror selected Thursday had seen the famous freeway pursuit leading up to Simpson's arrest, but only four said they ever saw Simpson play football. All 12 said they had no opinion about Simpson's guilt or innocence.
The sifting of the panel took all day Thursday and was a delicate mixture of legal chess and chemistry. Attorneys for Simpson and the prosecution mixed and matched prospective jurors throughout a painstaking session, searching for a group that both sides would accept. Prosecutors opened the day by removing a white, ponytailed tile salesman from Pasadena, and defense attorneys surprised the courtroom by then accepting the first 12 jurors they were offered.
"Your honor, we believe we have a fair and impartial jury," said Shapiro, adding that the defense would "accept the jury as currently constituted."
But when prosecutors used their next turn to challenge a black woman, Simpson's lawyers joined the fray. For the rest of the day, the two sides traded challenges. During the morning, prosecutors removed a series of black jury prospects.