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Jury Selection in Simpson Trial Ends After 11 Weeks : Courts: Both sides accept racially mixed group of alternates. Judge can now focus on legal, evidence issues.

December 09, 1994|ANDREA FORD and JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A lengthy string of setbacks, sidetracks and postponements came to an end in the O.J. Simpson murder trial Thursday as both sides accepted a racially mixed panel of alternate jurors, concluding a grueling jury selection process that has dragged on since late September.

The final round of jury selection in the Simpson case unfolded in a tense, quiet courtroom with the two sides taking turns exercising peremptory challenges--those used to remove a panelist without stating the reason. When the process concluded, the nine-woman, three-man alternate panel included seven blacks, four whites and one Latino.

They will be pressed into service if any of the 12 regular jurors are removed, a possibility that already has surfaced amid allegations of improper behavior by one or more of the Simpson jurors.

Simpson smiled broadly Thursday when the selection process ended. His two principal attorneys, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Robert L. Shapiro, strode together to the lectern and Shapiro announced: "On behalf of O.J. Simpson, we accept the jury."

Jury selection in the Simpson case has been under way since Sept. 26, when the first panelists filled out an exhaustive questionnaire probing their feelings about the case and searching for any biases that might make them unfit to serve.

With jurors and alternates now in place, the judge and attorneys can at last begin focusing on legal issues and evidence in the case. On Monday, they will take up a defense effort to block the introduction of any evidence of marital discord between Simpson and his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.

The slashed and stabbed bodies of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were discovered June 13, shortly after midnight. Simpson has been charged with those murders; he has pleaded not guilty and has vigorously proclaimed his innocence.

The painstaking questioning that jury candidates have undergone reflects the high stakes that both sides place on finding an impartial panel to weigh the evidence against the former football superstar. More than 100 candidates were dismissed during the selection process, and at least one of those selected for the alternate panel has expressed deep reservations about being chosen for the case.

The reluctant alternate juror has repeatedly asked to be let go, saying that she had served on a previous jury and found the experience trying. She displayed no emotion as the panel was sworn in.

Some of her colleagues on the panel seemed more enthusiastic about the prospect of serving, and all survived detailed questioning intended to weed out those who could not be impartial. The group includes a legal secretary, a receptionist, a real estate appraiser and a county worker, among others. Most of the alternates completed high school but did not graduate from college. Only one panelist reported no knowledge of the freeway pursuit that culminated in Simpson's arrest June 17.

Those who were not selected during Thursday's final round were excused after being effusively thanked by Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito.

"I am personally grateful to have had the opportunity to meet each and every one of you," said Ito, who has guided the jury selection process for nearly 11 weeks, halting it occasionally to deal with the unexpected developments that have come to characterize the Simpson case. "You got to participate in something that was important and significant."

As one of the excused alternate jurors left, he flashed a thumbs-up sign at Simpson, who did not appear to notice. That man, a 58-year-old labor relations specialist from Pico-Union, had earlier told the attorneys that he thought he would make a good juror because of his experience in labor issues. He also described himself as the victim of domestic violence--one of three male jury candidates who related experiences involving women striking their spouses. Simpson has made similar assertions in describing his relationship with Nicole Simpson.

The painstaking process of selecting a jury came at the end of about two hours of strategic maneuvering by both sides Thursday.

As the jury candidates watched silently, Simpson huddled with his lawyers, debating the composition of the panel each time that it was their turn to exercise a challenge or accept the group of alternates.

The prosecution went first, excusing a 43-year-old black woman from South-Central. At first, it appeared that the process could end quickly; Simpson's lawyers announced that they would accept the panel as it stood. But after prosecutors challenged two more panelists, Simpson's team joined the exchange. At the session's end, prosecutors had challenged six blacks and one Latino. Simpson's lawyers excused three Latinos, two whites, one Asian American and one black.

The panel's composition has been closely watched in a case in which racial issues lurk just beneath the surface. Simpson, a black man, is charged with the murders of two whites.

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