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Despite Perks, Sequestration Is a Gilded Cage, Jurors Say : Courts: Former panelists describe isolation and censorship facing those who will hear the Simpson case.

January 15, 1995|STEPHANIE SIMON and RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To anybody else, it would have been a dream vacation: An all-expense-paid, two-week stay at the Los Angeles Hilton. Maids to do the laundry, chefs to cook the food. Bellhops to tote the bags and a chauffeur to drive the van.

But to Carolyn Walters--a juror sequestered to deliberate in the Reginald O. Denny beating trial--the free getaway became a gilded hell. Every luxury merely intensified the suffocating sense that she was trapped.

"If you're limited to the same four walls day after day, even a nice room becomes just a glorified prison," said Walters, the jury forewoman. "I'll tell you: It gets old pretty fast."

As jurors in the O.J. Simpson case settled into their hotel rooms last week, men and women who have served on other sequestered panels agreed with Walters that a depressing and at times infuriating feeling of isolation sets in very quickly. From telephone conversations to family visits, every contact with the outside world is censored, every activity is controlled. Jurors in the federal Rodney G. King beating trial could not even watch "Beverly Hills Cop," lest the movie taint jurors' views of police officers.

Because sequestration creates so much hardship for jurors--and runs up such a hefty tab for taxpayers--it has been used in only a few extraordinary cases in Los Angeles County over the last two decades. Judges generally order sequestration only when jurors' safety is threatened, or when inflammatory, prejudicial information surfaces outside the courtroom, said Judge Cecil J. Mills, formerly a supervising judge for Los Angeles County Superior Court.

"Sequestering is not something judges would generally do without a great deal of soul-searching," Mills said. "Boy, is it an inconvenience."

Southern California courts have hosted numerous sensational trials, from the Menendez brothers to the Hillside Strangler case. But veteran court watchers could recall only four local trials in the last 25 years in which jurors were sequestered.

* In the Charles Manson murder case of 1970-71, jurors were closeted in the Ambassador Hotel for 8 1/2 months--nearly the entire trial. "If you're serious about insulating and shielding the jury from media coverage of the case, there's only one way to do that, and that's sequestration," said Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who won Manson's conviction.

* In the 1993 federal King beating case, jurors were sequestered for the entire 57-day trial. But this time, the judge's concern was security, not publicity. Tensions were still high after the riots that erupted in 1992 after a Superior Court jury acquitted the police officers of beating King, so U.S. District Judge John G. Davies wanted federal jurors protected by marshals.

* In the 1993 Denny case, which involved two men accused of seriously beating a truck driver during the early hours of the riots, jurors were sequestered during deliberations to protect them from the heckling and harassment they had encountered at the courthouse.

* In Orange County's 1989 trial of serial killer Randy Steven Kraft, jurors also deliberated in secret, cut off from all news accounts of the gory case. Their sequestration lasted two weeks.

In the Simpson case, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito ordered sequestration out of concern that the intense media coverage of the double murder case would improperly influence jurors. Many of the most tantalizing details of the case, and Simpson's stormy relationship with his ex-wife, were widely reported but may never be admitted as evidence.

Ito has not detailed the terms of the jurors' sequestration, and court officials are still discussing how to arrange family and conjugal visits.

But one ground rule is already clear: "Everything they read, and everything they hear and see will be monitored," Sheriff's Deputy Fidel Gonzales said.

A dozen Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies will guard the 12 Simpson jurors and 12 alternates around the clock. They may decide to open mail and listen to phone conversations. Although the deputies will not trail every juror at every minute, Gonzales said that "just about all activities will be monitored." Any excursions outside the hotel or courtroom will be organized and supervised by the deputies.

Gonzales said taxpayers will cover the jurors' $85-a-night hotel rooms, $35-a-day meal allowances, and extras such as laundry, transportation and occasional field trips to tourist attractions such as Universal Studios or Griffith Park. For a six-month trial, that adds up to at least $518,000.

The tab for the King jury sequestration, which lasted less than two months, reached $204,055.

"You paid for it," King juror Erik Rasmussen said.

Upbeat about the experience, Rasmussen said sequestration taught him to work through tough issues and communicate with strangers. But the 56-year-old Fullerton resident admitted that at times he resented the restrictive regimen.

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