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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : From Ito, Something to Chew On

June 09, 1995|BILL BOYARSKY

A television camera mounted on the ceiling, hidden by a dark plastic bubble, constantly scans the Simpson courtroom, its ostensible task to guard against potential assassins, bomb throwers and other terrorists.

Judge Lance A. Ito operates it with a joystick on his desk, as do other judges with similar cameras on the high-security 9th floor of the Criminal Courts Building.

On Wednesday, with Ito at the controls, the eye in the sky made its biggest bust--at least three reporters chewing gum, sucking on lozenges and inappropriately craning their necks.

You may wonder, as I do, how a judge conducting a complicated and high-pressure murder trial has time to monitor the courtroom with his remote control camera in search of gum chewers. Or why he cares.

*

If he cares, I care. My beat includes reporting on the reporters covering the Simpson trial and when my media colleagues get in trouble, I'm there, notebook in hand. So at 8:15 a.m. Thursday, I was standing in the hallway outside Judge Ito's courtroom covering my first chewing gum scandal of the case.

Ito had summoned to his chambers two of the accused, Jessica Seigel of the Chicago Tribune and Sally Ann Stewart of USA Today. The day before, he had brought in Kimberly Maroe of KCAL-TV.

The two reporters arrived, one of them represented by media lawyer Kelli Sager. I asked her if she ever thought she would be defending a gum chewing case. She smiled and went off to confer privately with her client.

At 8:30 a.m., the scheduled time of the inquisition, the courtroom door was locked. One of the accused reporters banged on it, trying to get the attention of those inside. Ignored, she found a sheriff's deputy, who admitted Seigel, Stewart and the lawyer. I waited outside, notebook in hand, until the trio emerged.

"I said I was sorry," Seigel recounted. "He asked us not to do it again. I apologized and [said] I wouldn't do it again." Stewart was equally penitent. "He was very nice, it was very quick, and I was sorry," she said.

They said they were granted permission to remain in Ito's courtroom, along with KCAL's Maroe.

By then, other reporters were arriving for the beginning of the trial. There were a lot of chewing gum jokes, but they had the sound of gallows humor.

Every reporter remembered that Ito previously had banned reporters from USA Today and Court TV for talking in court. Being bounced from the courtroom is a career killer for a court reporter. For all the jokes, the reporters know that Judge Ito holds their careers in his hands.

It was while I was chatting outside the courtroom that I first learned of the hidden camera.

Author Joe McGinnis said he encountered it earlier in the trial. A sheriff's deputy briefly confiscated his notebook, explaining that the surveillance camera seemed to catch McGinnis leaning over and trying to read the notes of one of the lawyers working on the case. McGinnis denied it, and the deputy returned his notebook.'

I asked a sheriff's deputy about the cameras. He explained they were part of an extensive security network, most of it secret, installed on the 9th floor to prevent the armed assaults that have hit courtrooms around the nation. The cameras, he said, can be operated either from a control room on the 9th floor or by the judge.

Judge Ito, it turns out, is well armed with the tools of intimidation.

*

Later Thursday morning, I called a close friend of Ito, former Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, to ask him what he thought of the judge's behavior. Philibosian, now in private practice and an ABC-TV commentator on the Simpson trial, was one of Ito's mentors in the D.A.'s office and was instrumental in his appointment to the bench.

He said we reporters were wrong to be ridiculing the judge. "I've been practicing law here for 27 years, and judges have been death on gum chewing as long as I have practiced," Philibosian said.

"I have seen judges have bailiffs take pieces of paper over to people to have them throw out gum. It is a matter of decorum. Gum chewing can be distracting and disturbing in the courtroom."

I mentioned that the same restrictions don't apply to the lawyers. Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, for example, sucks mints throughout court sessions. "Lawyers get more leeway than spectators," Philibosian said. "In a long and protracted trial, there is more pressure on lawyers. Lawyers get to drink water. They talk a lot. They get to write notes and whisper because they are conducting the case. The spectators are just there to watch."

We talked about why Ito permanently banned the two reporters for talking and threatened to kick out the others.

Maybe he was making an example of them to warn the others. Certainly, Philibosian said, "that is an issue he will never have to worry about again."

Philibosian obviously approves of the tactic. He told me an old Philibosian family story. "My grandfather was a farmer," he said. "He had a family orchard with a prize cherry tree. Every year the blue jays would come and eat the cherries. Finally, the first blue jay he saw he would shoot and hang it on the tree as a warning to the other blue jays."

For the rest of the season, the blue jays never returned.

Lucky for the reporters that Judge Ito didn't ask Philibosian for advice.

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