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Ito's Televised Interview Lands Him in Controversy : Simpson case: Some question his judgment after he blasted media coverage. No ethical rules were violated.

November 15, 1994|JIM NEWTON and ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, who for weeks has threatened news organizations and sternly warned prospective jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial to avoid publicity about the case, was thrust into a controversy of his own making Monday when a jury candidate said she had seen an ad for a televised interview with the judge.

The judge's brush with the pitfalls of celebrity came on a day when he delivered the defense another setback in its attempts to limit evidence against Simpson. Defense lawyers had argued that a June 15 break-in of Simpson's Ford Bronco while it was in a police garage broke the chain of custody governing evidence seized from it and that anything found in the vehicle after that should not be admissible against the football great. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman.

Ito, who previously had ruled against defense efforts to suppress other items found in and on the Bronco, decided that the break-in and theft of two receipts did not constitute "concrete evidence of tampering."

Ito did rule in favor of the defense on one point, however, saying that conclusions of a procedure known as Luminol testing--in which glow-in-the-dark results can be dramatically displayed to a jury--cannot be admitted by prosecutors to establish that stains in the car are blood unless other tests support that conclusion. The defense said Luminol tests are unreliable.

Before issuing his written ruling on the Bronco evidence, the judge got a glimpse of his newfound star status Monday as the quest resumed for alternates to sit on the jury. Asked whether she had seen news accounts about the case, the first prospective juror questioned told Ito she had been watching "Murder, She Wrote" on Sunday night when an advertisement aired promoting a five-part interview with the judge.

Ito, who earlier dismissed prospective jurors for such passing media contact as watching a cartoon or a Barbara Stanwyck movie, allowed that jury candidate--a 60-year-old woman who is a retired gas company worker from Norwalk--to remain on the panel after she said she only saw the promo, not the interview itself.

Ito downplayed the publicity surrounding his interview, which television station KCBS-TV has aggressively advertised.

"Well, it's sweeps week," Ito said Monday, referring to the period in which stations compete against each other for ratings.

The interview and the fallout from it focused attention Monday on Ito's conflicted relationship with the press corps covering the high-profile trial. Legal observers said Ito had violated no ethical rules by agreeing to the televised interview because he declined to discuss the Simpson case, but some criticized him nevertheless.

The interview does not represent the first time Ito has spoken out since taking over the Simpson case; he granted a few newspaper interviews early in the proceedings. But the KCBS series contains the judge's most extensive public comments, and it comes after his sometimes vitriolic criticism of coverage of the case.

Moreover, the station's extensive marketing of the story has made it difficult to avoid, even for prospective jurors trying to steer clear of news about the case or its cast of characters.

The station said Ito only agreed to the interview after some hesitation and only after clearly stating that he would not address any issues involving the Simpson case. The first installment of the interview focused largely on Ito's parents, Japanese Americans who were confined to an internment camp during World War II.

"Some will say, 'Gee, isn't this terrific role modeling?' " said Myrna Raeder, a Southwestern University law professor. But, she added: "I do feel this queasiness about the judge having decided to do this. . . . It is troubling given the amount of hostility that the judge has shown to press coverage to become part of the publicity surrounding this case."

A number of legal experts echoed those sentiments, saying they were surprised by Ito's decision to grant the interview, especially in light of his comments about publicity in the case.

"The judge hasn't done anything unethical or anything like that," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law school professor. "But in this case, where he has cautioned jurors about the coverage and has been highly critical of the media, I think some people will be puzzled to see him agree to be part of that coverage."

Harland W. Braun, a noted criminal defense attorney, was even more critical.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "Here he is complaining about the media becoming too sensational, and now he's part of it. . . . Here's a guy who's critical of frivolous press. What does he think this is?"

But Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor, disagreed.

"I think it's very desirable for judges to do this type of thing," he said. "It demystifies them. . . . This does a wonderful job at showing Judge Ito as a human being, as a thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate person."

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