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THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Jurors Are 'Defendants' in the Private Trial You Never See : Panel: The judge has spent hundreds of hours in closed hearings to decide which members should be dismissed, transcripts reveal.

July 28, 1995|HENRY WEINSTEIN and TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

While presiding over the "Trial of the Century" in public, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito also has been conducting a second high-stakes trial in private over the jury in the Simpson murder trial.

According to transcripts released Thursday, he has questioned scores of witnesses at closed-door hearings, used two full-time sheriff's deputies to conduct investigations, interviewed jurors many times and refereed numerous sessions at which the attorneys wrangled over which panelists should be dismissed.

The transcripts--the latest to be released on closed-door hearings into possible jury misconduct--are replete with code-named mystery characters such as "JJ" and "HH" who could have come out of a John Le Carre spy novel. Indeed, the transcripts reveal that prior to dismissing juror Michael Knox on March 1, Ito personally interviewed about a dozen of these code-named witnesses under oath in his chambers. He said his deputies had interviewed at least 30 people.

The four installments of transcripts released so far show that Ito has spent hundreds of hours dealing with allegations of misconduct, minor fracases and poor race relations among the panelists.

Among other things, the transcripts released Thursday reveal that in February, Ito focused a surveillance camera on juror Tracy Kennedy after getting reports that he was acting strangely. After reviewing videotape, Ito concluded that Kennedy's courtroom behavior was normal, but he was later kicked off the panel for maintaining a list of jurors' names in violation of a court order.

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The transcripts also illustrate the ways that members of the public have injected themselves into the case. At a closed-door hearing in February, Ito told the attorneys that the Knox probe was launched in mid-January--even before opening statements were given--based on a letter from an unnamed lawyer in Washington, D.C.

In addition, in February, unnamed witnesses told Ito of things they claimed to have heard about Knox and another member of the jury from an unnamed co-worker of Knox. The co-worker said Knox hoped to get rich by "hanging the jury."

The co-worker said he knew this because his wife had gone to school with Knox's wife and they had remained friendly. At one point, deputies investigating allegations of juror misconduct for the judge told the Knox co-worker's wife she could no longer visit Knox's wife, but Ito overruled them.

During the lengthy Knox investigation, two deputies working for Ito discovered that Knox had been accused of domestic violence in the mid-1980s. Ito interviewed two women with whom Knox previously had been involved, both of whom expressed anxiety to the judge about possible problems if Knox learned of their testimony. Ito assured them that their identities would remain confidential.

One of the women told Ito that during a drive in the early 1980s near the Mexican border, Knox told her: "You know, I could just do away with you right now, and I could dump you down in Mexico and they wouldn't ever find you."

Another unnamed witness told the judge that Knox had told a friend that he thought the Mafia murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman. Knox denied ever having said this but conceded that he had failed to disclose that he had been arrested after a girlfriend accused him of kidnaping her. No charges were filed.

Eventually, Knox was kicked off the panel because of his failure to reveal the arrest, which Ito viewed as an incident of domestic violence.

The latest set of transcripts also confirms, as previously reported, that juror Catherine Murdoch, a 63-year-old legal secretary, was dismissed from the panel because she goes to the same orthopedist as Simpson, and Ito was concerned she might give too much credence to Dr. Bertram Maltz's testimony if he took the witness stand.

Before making this decision, Ito spent considerable time investigating allegations by then-juror Jeanette Harris, who said that Murdoch had pushed her and that she told another panelist that she would rather have a deadlocked jury than be bullied into a decision with which she disagreed. Harris was also later bumped from the panel.

When Ito confronted Murdoch with the allegation that she had discussed the case with another juror, Murdoch became indignant.

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"I never said that," she told the judge, "I can't believe somebody said that. . . . I would never say that. You are kidding? . . . I'm just shocked. . . . I never discuss the case." Murdoch also denied Harris' pushing allegation.

Ito then questioned juror Francine Florio-Bunten, who was said to be walking with Murdoch when the alleged remarks were made. Florio-Bunten responded that Murdoch might have said something of this nature because she is "strong-willed," but quickly added: "I don't remember the conversation." (Florio-Bunten was dismissed from the panel in late May.)

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