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COLUMN ONE : 'O.J. 101' Enlivens Law School : Campuses across U.S. are using the famous case to teach basic principles. Judge Ito even asked to see Harvard students' opinions on whether to ban the TV camera.

November 07, 1994|PAUL LIEBERMAN and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When Harvard professors Charles Nesson and Peter Murray were asked to overhaul "Introduction to Lawyering" for incoming students, their first decision was to put the 540 newcomers on-line, so they could punch up Supreme Court opinions and communicate by E-mail.

The class thus got its first subtitle: "Cyberlaw: A Course of Skills in Mind and Practice."

But that still left the professors with case material that had been used by Harvard's first-year, or "1L," law students for ages to learn such basics as how to write a legal brief: A woman stumbles in front of a drunk driver--can her heirs sue the bar that tanked him up? That sort of thing.

The canned cases had Nesson shaking his head.

"All I can think of," he confided to Murray, "is O.J."

Bingo. Harvard's introductory class got a second subtitle: "The Law and O.J. Simpson."

From the start of the fall semester, the 1Ls have been taught the fundamentals through the legal machinations taking place 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles Superior Court. They were given a reading list that included "Juice: The O.J. Simpson Tragedy" by the Globe supermarket tabloid. And they are tapped into "O.J. Info-bases" as well as Supreme Court rulings.

It was hardly what the lawyers-to-be expected in the ivy-covered halls of Harvard. But as computer bulletin boards put them in touch with students elsewhere, they found that their professors were not the only ones who had decided that a case often derided for its sensationalism might be a godsend for the serious study of law.

Indeed, it has become an instant ingredient in the curriculum from Yale to UCLA. The trial is being offered up as Exhibit A to spur discussions of relevance, hearsay, weight of evidence, search-and-seizure, expert testimony, impeachment of witnesses, media access . . . the list goes on.

As Robert L. Shapiro and Marcia Clark quizzed prospective jurors on the ninth floor of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building, students at the University of San Francisco were conducting their own voir dire in a moot court. Some took the roles of defense lawyers and prosecutors while others were potential jurors being probed on their attitudes toward DNA evidence.

Nowhere has the case played such a central role, however, as at Harvard, alma mater of four of the nine Supreme Court justices. Last month the trial became more than an academic exercise here when Judge Lance A. Ito got word of the 1L course and had a clerk call Nesson.

The next day, Oct. 12, the professor rushed out a notice reporting that Ito "would like to receive copies of our best student memoranda on the questions the judge now faces in determining whether to ban cameras from the courtroom."

With Ito having already scheduled a hearing on the issue for today, 150 students were mobilized, in 59 small groups, to write memos.

"When we started," says Murray, "no one would have guessed that we would not only study the case, but become part of the case."

*

A videotape plays on a screen in front of the Austin North lecture hall as 135 students filter into the amphitheater that has hosted Harvard law classes for a century.

The video shows law school alumni at a reunion seminar. "What were they talking about?" Murray asks. "O.J.!"

The old graduates' interest is reassuring to Nesson and Murray. They had felt some trepidation about using a sexy, media-darling case of the moment in a school known for its stern traditionalism--exemplified by the mythical Prof. Kingsfield of "The Paper Chase."

Nesson, 55, has been a professor here for nearly three decades, though hardly in the Kingsfield mold--he eschews coats and ties for turtlenecks and uses the computer sign-on "Eon." He tells the students that one 79-year-old alumnus, Harold Brown, had written a memo to provoke debate at his 55th reunion--and picked the very "Ito issue" they were tackling.

Brown reviewed sensational trials in the past 100 years (Scopes and Lizzie Borden, among others) and concluded that the Simpson case highlighted a disturbing new development, "the entertainment defense," marked by "dramatic manipulation of the public."

But today's class hardly centers on such a broad question. Facing the students is the nitty-gritty of law: the writing of a brief.

A "Power Points" slide pops on the screen, and Murray tells how even the smallest feature of a brief--section headings, say--must advance the "core theory."

So what pops on the screen next? An actual heading from the district attorney's brief defending the search of Simpson's home after the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman.

The heading begins, "Exigent Circumstances Justified the Warrantless Search Onto the Premises at 360 Rockingham. . . ."

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