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Key State Panel to Consider Major Changes for Trials

October 31, 1995|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Spurred in part by the O.J. Simpson verdicts, the California Judicial Council has decided to examine the wisdom of allowing cameras in the courtroom and ordered a systematic study of possible reforms of the jury system.

The decision by the statewide judicial policy-making panel could lead to major changes in the way California trials are conducted. Jury reform recommendations, which will be presented to the council in May, may include proposed legislation and constitutional revisions, the council announced Monday.

"We've got half the people in this state thinking the jury process doesn't work and it's necessary to respond to that," said state Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier), a judicial council member. "I don't think we need wholesale adjustment, but we need to change how we treat jurors."

The council acted partly in response to a letter from Gov. Pete Wilson, who urged the panel to review a state rule on courtroom cameras and consider jury reform. Wilson called for action within hours after a Los Angeles jury returned not guilty verdicts for Simpson.

"The cameras became an external intrusion into the judicial process," Wilson said, "often, at times, distorting the presentation of evidence and the arguments."

The judicial panel will evaluate whether cameras should be banned in all state court proceedings or only in some. Cameras are allowed in state courts at the discretion of the judge. Since the Simpson trial, several judges have refused to allow trials in their courts to be televised.

California Supreme Court Justice Ronald George, also a member of the council, said the council has no predisposition to ban cameras.

"Any option is open really," he said. "It is just going to be a fresh look by people who have served on high-publicity trials."

The council appointed a committee of eight judges, two court administrators, a prosecutor and a public defender to review the issue. Among those appointed was Judge William R. Pounders, who presided over the first McMartin Pre-School molestation trial.

On jury reform, George said he looks forward to recommendations to improve the jury system. Even before the Simpson case, he said, it was apparent that jurors were not always used efficiently.

"Most of us recognize the use of jurors has not been ideal, certainly in terms of how we use their time, in the selection process and once they are picked in the case," the justice said.

Although the Simpson case clearly prompted the review of courtroom cameras, the council already was preparing groundwork for a study on juries, including the possibility of allowing guilty verdicts with less than unanimous juries in non-death-penalty trials. Such a proposal is likely to be debated by the Legislature next year and to be placed on a statewide ballot.

A statewide task force of representatives from the judicial, executive and legislative branches will review issues of how well jurors understand the law and technical testimony, sequestration, and the care and treatment of jurors.

Wilson, in his letter to the council, asked members to consider the problems of sequestering jurors in long trials and to determine whether lawyers should be allowed to make political appeals to jurors in closing arguments.

"Doing this as some sort of response to the O.J. verdict really sets the stage, I think, for over-emphasizing the public reaction to that verdict," said University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald F. Uelmen, who was a member of the Simpson defense team.

"The worst mistake we could make would be to reform the system based on the kind of skewed experience of this one case," Uelmen said.

He said the Simpson trial should make a strong case against allowing jurors to decide criminal cases on a 10-2 vote, the proposal headed for the ballot.

"If people did not like the O.J. verdict, then they should hate this initiative," Uelmen said. "If the initiative were in effect, we would have had a verdict in one hour instead of four hours, and we would have had a verdict with two people dissenting."

In its first secret-ballot vote, two Simpson jurors voted for guilt. The panel reached unanimity in less than four hours.

But the proposal for split verdicts gained favor before the Simpson jury even began deliberations. Many expected a hung verdict. Two states now allow for non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases.

Calderon, who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for several significant changes in juries, including limitations on the right of lawyers to discharge potential jurors for little or no reason.

He said jury summonses should be enforced more strictly, and people should be fined if they disregard summonses. The state, he said Monday, should compensate jurors and offer tax credits to companies that pay the salaries of employees who serve on juries.

Calderon expressed hope that the council will find some way of requiring that jurors deliberate. He also called for allowing jurors to ask questions of the judge during trials and to talk about the case as it unfolds.

The California Judicial Council is a policy-making board for the judiciary and establishes rules for state courts. Most of its members are judges, but it also includes members of the Legislature and the State Bar of California.

Times staff writer Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to the story.

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