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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : The Wheels of Justice Haven't Spun the Same in O.C. Courts Either

October 04, 1995|DAVAN MAHARAJ and KEN ELLINGWOOD and LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — Even before the lightning verdicts, the O.J. Simpson trial was altering the face of Orange County's justice system.

The lawyer in a high-profile case involving the brutal slaying of a Huntington Beach woman moved to bar television cameras from the courtroom to prevent the kind of media frenzy seen in the Simpson trial.

Even in a civil case involving a frozen yogurt company, an Orange County Superior Court judge, weary of watching DNA experts in the Simpson case battle for weeks, limited testimony by selecting his own expert.

And in a federal fraud case, a judge here alluded to the Simpson trial when he noted how few jurors wanted to serve on the panel.

But within hours of Tuesday's announcement that Simpson had been acquitted of murder charges, there were more reverberations. Citing the "disappointing" verdict, Orange County's top prosecutor, Michael R. Capizzi, called for banning cameras from courtrooms. He also promoted an initiative proposed by law enforcement agencies that would lift the requirement for unanimous verdicts in criminal cases.

While the district attorney touted reforms, local police worried that the Simpson case set a new--and perhaps impossible--standard for proof and cast a shadow over law enforcement. "I don't know how else to view this other than an incredible indictment of the LAPD specifically and law enforcement in general," said Anaheim Police Lt. Ted Labahn, a 23-year veteran.

Orange Police Chief John R. Robertson plans to send a memo this week to his 146 officers, telling them not to let the case sap their spirits. Robertson said that last week he decided to write the memo after about a half-dozen officers were called "Fuhrmans,"--a reference to the now-infamous detective in the Simpson case--by people who had been stopped or arrested within the past few weeks.

Some people muttered "just another Fuhrman," at the officers, Robertson said, "and that's like being kicked in the stomach."

Surprisingly, Orange County defense lawyers also recoiled at the verdict, saying they feared that largely conservative jurors here would unleash a backlash against them and their clients.

"The jurors in Orange County are such a different group than in Los Angeles County," said Gary Pohlson, a criminal defense lawyer who is president of the Orange County Bar Assn. "I'm afraid of an overreaction on [their] part."

Leonard Gumlia, a veteran attorney with the county public defender's office, said defense lawyers will have to take pains during jury selection to distance themselves from Simpson's lawyers.

"We're very worried about going in front of juries in the next few weeks and months," said Gumlia, who will represent murder suspect John J. Famalaro in a trial set to begin next year. Famalaro is charged with killing Newport Beach student Denise Huber, whose body was found July, 1994, in Arizona in a freezer owned by Famalaro.

But reforms may bring about long-term ramifications.

In a speech before the Salvation Army's Women's Auxiliary in Tustin, Capizzi introduced some of the legal issues likely to engage local prosecutors and defense attorneys in the weeks to come: Cameras in the courtroom, whether unanimous verdicts should be a must in criminal cases and streamlining trials to ease the stress on jurors.

Some of those issues have already crept into the Orange County courts--thanks to the Simpson trial.

In one case, defense lawyer Julian W. Bailey moved to exclude television cameras from the upcoming trial of Edward Patrick Morgan, who is accused of sexually assaulting and murdering 23-year-old Leanora Annette Wong of Huntington Beach outside a nightclub in Orange last year.

"The people in the [Simpson] case started playing to the cameras," Bailey said. "I don't see how that can have a good effect on the pursuit of justice. I think everybody is a little scared of the impact of cameras and how it affects witness testimony,"

Bailey said Superior Court Judge Richard L. Weatherspoon declined to bar cameras altogether in the Morgan case, but indicated he would not allow witness testimony to be televised.

The Simpson trial, and in particular the issue of cameras in the courtroom, has routinely surfaced in courts with judges and lawyers frequently mentioning it in unflattering terms.

U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor has been outspoken on the issue. Although federal courts still do not permit cameras, the issue continues to be raised. State judges have discretion over whether to allow cameras.

"I think all judges have been reviewing the questions of what lessons we have learned from the first Simpson trial," Taylor said in legal arguments associated with a federal murder trial. "And I think that one of the lessons is probably no judge will vote in favor of cameras in the courtroom, at least in the federal courts, from now on."

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