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THE SIMPSON LEGACY / LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Trial & Error: FOCUS SHIFTS TO A JUSTICE SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS : Weighing the Necessity of Change / How One Case May Reshape Criminal Justice in America : For Judge Ito, Trial Leaves a Bittersweet Legacy : He is praised, questioned and ridiculed for his handling of the nine-month marathon. Some say his career may suffer. A friend calls it the 'ordeal of his life.'

October 08, 1995|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

At the start of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, he was America's Judge, a fixture on the evening news, a patient and fair arbitrator of courtroom plays, a solicitous father figure for an imprisoned jury.

Now that the trial is over, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito finds his judicial legacy questioned, his style blamed for some flaws in the trial and his legal career as likely to be hurt as helped by the case that catapulted him to fame.

Although some scholars and judges rate his performance highly, as do most members of the public interviewed by pollsters, Ito nevertheless is frequently excoriated for the nine-month duration of the trial.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel, trying to quell a commotion in her San Francisco courtroom in March, warned: "I do not run a Lance Ito court. I run a tight ship." An out-of-state judge told USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky that he hoped to preside over a celebrated case because he wanted to show the world how a trial should be run--"not like Ito."

Ito's defenders stress that any judge who presided over the famous trial would have been second-guessed and suggest that judicial critics have allowed their egos to persuade them that they would have done a better job. Some probably are just envious, these supporters say.

"I think he has done as well as anybody could have," said retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow. "I think we have all learned . . . that the one person who is blamed when everything happens is the trial judge."

Ito's friends describe the trial as a strain that caused him considerable anguish and pain at times. He could not go anywhere in public without being recognized and often pestered. He was the first to enter the Criminal Courts Building in the morning and the last to leave, and the strain was visible on his face, colleagues said. One said he tried to "cheer him up" by showing Ito articles in which he was praised.

By the end, Ito, 45, had expressed "concerns" to Superior Court Judge John Reid about the trial's effect on his legal career and felt "aghast" and "shocked" by suggestions of a few fellow judges that he should quit and take $5 million to write a book about the case. Reid compared Ito to a "trauma victim."

"This was the ordeal of his life," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James A. Bascue, supervising judge for the Criminal Court. "This was not a pleasant experience for him."

Scholars and jurists generally praise Ito for legally sound rulings and an exceptional grasp of the record in the case. "Overall, Ito did a good job in an impossible set of circumstances," Chemerinsky said.

But even some who rate his performance highly fault him for failing to cut off protracted arguments over motions, unequal personal treatment of lawyers and occasional peevishness.

"I thought his handling of the trial was fair and evenhanded, and on the whole, legally correct," said UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett. "He was witty and entertaining--but basically a disaster. He's made our criminal justice system the laughingstock of the world."

The exasperation of critics soared when Ito failed to cut off Simpson's declaration of innocence--out of the presence of the jury--after the defendant was asked to waive his right to testify.

Most legal analysts said Ito's courtroom rulings favored the prosecution, although the law in those situations also tended to be on the district attorney's side. Some criticized Ito for allowing testimony that Simpson had said he dreamed of killing his former wife and for failing to allow the jury to hear more of the taped statements that former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman made to an aspiring screenwriter.

"There were very, very important issues in this case decided wrongly by Judge Ito that could have tremendous consequences for future cases," said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who had prepared an appeal in case Simpson was convicted. "This case was a textbook for judicial error."

Dershowitz said he was prepared to challenge Ito's rulings on several grounds, including the admission of some of the domestic violence evidence, the failure to allow in Fuhrman's taped statements about planting evidence, and the Police Department's search for evidence at Simpson's home without a warrant after the murders.

But after offering a scorching analysis of Ito's rulings, even Dershowitz conceded that Ito "was much better than most judges," probably because he knew the world was watching him.

University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald F. Uelmen, who also was to prepare a possible appeal for Simpson, said Ito committed a handful of errors that could have reversed a conviction. "On the law," Uelmen said, "he tended to lean toward the prosecution, and on some rulings he leaned too far."

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