SAN FRANCISCO — Lawyers rarely agree on much of anything, inside a courtroom or out.
But Sunday, at the annual conference of the State Bar Assn., upward of 5,000 of them seemed unanimous in their belief that the O.J. Simpson trial has been bad for their profession and will force major changes on how they go about their business--from less-than-unanimous jury verdicts to limits on televised trials.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Peter Keane of San Francisco opened a crowded seminar on legal ethics by citing a poll showing that after viewing the Simpson trial, 85% of the public has concluded that the court system is in deep trouble.
In that seminar, held in the conference room of a downtown San Francisco hotel, an example of that loss of confidence played out.
Danielle Little, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall who is awaiting her bar exam results, rose and singled out panelist Joseph Russoniello, a regular prosecution-oriented television commentator on Simpson trial matters, for his "racist" comments about the case, saying they have fueled distrust of the system, particularly among African Americans.
"You have white attorneys on television giving their own personal spin, which happens typically to be a racist spin," Little said. "The defense can do nothing right in this case, and the cynicism you see among African Americans stems from having watched the trial themselves and then listen to these white attorneys say what you're seeing isn't what you thought you saw."
Looking weary, Russoniello, who was the U.S. attorney in San Francisco in the 1980s and now is in private practice, did not reply directly, but said: "It would be a tragedy if the trial ends and we don't learn anything from it."
He said attorneys must work to increase public confidence in the courts and improve police recruiting to end racism in law enforcement. But he added that he is "not sure we have the guts to address" what he called the "festering sores" in the system.
"If it's not addressed," he said, "it's not going to heal on its own."
A few lawyers, including Los Angeles defense attorney Jill Lansing, held out hope that some good may come from the unmasking of former Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman for his racist remarks. Perhaps, she said, the Los Angeles Police Department will reform.
Stanford law professor Jami Floyd had her doubts. The Fuhrman tapes, she said, "aren't going to change it if the Rodney King case didn't."
Then there are the more short-term changes that may come out of the Simpson trial, including one that many lawyers oppose: a state constitutional change to permit less-than-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases. An initiative to permit 10-2 jury verdicts could be on the November ballot. Several politicians already have endorsed it.
"My great fear," said Lansing, a defense lawyer in that other trial of the decade, the Menendez brothers' case, "is that we're going to have a backlash. We're going to lose unanimous juries."
Superior Court Judge Candace Cooper of Los Angeles, while not mentioning the less-than-unanimous jury verdict idea specifically, also warned of "quick fixes" that come from "ignorance" about the workings of the courts.
The cost and length of trials can be cut, Cooper said, and lawyers could be better disciplined. But she said the justice system is not as "broken as the public perceives . . . It's limping along, but it could be patched up."
Of most immediate concern, a new rule took effect Sunday that strictly limits what attorneys can say about a pending case. The State Bar Assn. must enforce the rule, which was imposed by the state Supreme Court as a direct result of comments made outside court by defense attorneys and prosecutors in the Simpson case.
Now, attorneys worry, the rule could mean that what they say outside court can be held against them, even if they are simply doing their job by representing the interests of their clients.
"Thought police," groused Russoniello, who was among the more talkative prosecutors when he headed the U.S. attorney's office.
Members of the Simpson defense team, some of whom are regulars at such conferences, were not spotted at the downtown hotels where the attorneys' conference took place. But there were sightings of Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden. Darden had been scheduled to speak on a panel Saturday about cameras in the courtroom, but arrived too late to take part.
Judge Lance A. Ito also was in town, attending the annual California Judges Assn. conference. With the Simpson jury scheduled to begin deliberating today, neither Ito nor Darden spoke publicly about the case, other than to utter "no comments."
Attorneys seemed unanimous in their belief that the case got out of hand. Stanford law professor Floyd likened the bickering lawyers to "children in a sandbox throwing sand at one another."
Part of the blame, attorneys say, rests with Ito. Perhaps, some of the lawyers said, Ito assumed--wrongly--that with the cameras turned on, attorneys for both sides would be on their best behavior.
Now that the trial is over, many lawyers blame the presence of cameras in the Simpson case for showing their profession in a bad light. Convinced that lawyers, witnesses, judges and jurors play to television cameras, several lawyers said they hope that their use will become more limited, if not banned, as is the case in federal courts.
"The right of the press to market that matter--and it's not a First Amendment issue, it's a marketing issue--falls way below the rights of the accused to a fair trial . . . or the victims' right to a fair trial," Cooper said.