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Location of Trial Can Be Crucial to Outcome, Experts Say : Court: Simpson case is latest to show importance of jury pool. Garcetti didn't have to try it Downtown, many insist.

November 27, 1995|MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before O.J. Simpson tried on the glove that didn't fit, before former Detective Mark Fuhrman was discredited, before police criminalist Dennis Fung stumbled through his trial testimony, prosecutors made a key decision that critically handicapped them from the start, many legal experts say.

They filed charges against Simpson in a Downtown court instead of in Santa Monica.

Juries drawn for the Santa Monica courthouse are more affluent, better educated and have a different ethnic mix than those at the Downtown courthouse. A Westside jury in the Simpson double-murder trial, legal experts say, would have been much more receptive to the prosecution's case.

The wrongful-death lawsuits that have been filed against Simpson are scheduled to be tried next spring in Santa Monica, which will give plaintiff's attorneys a tremendous advantage and will, once again, highlight the prosecution's decision in the Simpson case, the experts contend.

In two of the biggest cases ever tried by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office--the Simpson case and the Simi Valley trial of four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of beating Rodney G. King--the location of the trial was a crucial factor.

Both trials revealed the chasm between Southern California's white and black communities and showed that in a multiethnic, polarized city such as Los Angeles, where a case is tried may be as important as how it is tried.

When Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti faces reelection in March, his decision to file the case Downtown may come back to haunt him. Garcetti's political opponents already have blasted him for micro-managing the Simpson case, and have criticized a number of key decisions made by him and his team of prosecutors, including not filing the case in Santa Monica.

"Where you try the case, and who you have on the jury, has everything to do with the outcome," said Robert Pugsley, a Southwestern University law professor. "The exact same case--in Santa Monica--absolutely could have been a hung jury or a conviction."

Garcetti defended his decision in a recent interview, contending that the case would have been moved Downtown even if he had filed it in Santa Monica.

"We always knew this case was going to be tried Downtown," Garcetti said. "We knew it couldn't be tried in Santa Monica. . . . It was a given . . . based on our experience and the history of big cases."

Although a number of current and former judges disagree, Garcetti cited several reasons: The Santa Monica courthouse suffered tremendous damage during the Northridge earthquake, the facility is too small, its court calendar was "grossly overcrowded" and it did not have adequate security to handle a long-term, high-profile trial. He added that the county had spent more than $1 million renovating courtrooms on the ninth floor of the Criminal Courts Building for high-profile cases such as Simpson.

"We took the position that it was automatic" that the case would be moved Downtown, Garcetti said.

But Judge Robert M. Mallano, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court at the time of the trial, said moving the case "would not have been automatic." Mallano said the decision would have been left to the judge who supervised the county's criminal courts at the time, Judge Cecil J. Mills, who refused to comment about the Simpson case.

While a trial of the magnitude of the Simpson case might have strained the resources of a relatively small facility such as the Santa Monica courthouse, it could have been held there, said a number of current and former Downtown and Santa Monica judges. After all, those judges noted, the Michael Jackson civil trial was scheduled to be tried in Santa Monica before it was settled out of court. In addition, the major courthouse damage from the earthquake was repaired by the time the Simpson trial began.

There also were compelling legal reasons to try the case in Santa Monica, the judges said: It is the jurisdiction where the crime occurred and the jurisdiction where the suspect lived. It is also where Simpson, an affluent celebrity, could be judged by jurors many of whom are his peers in every respect except race.

"The case belonged in Santa Monica," said retired Superior Court Judge Leonard Wolf, presiding judge in Santa Monica from 1986 to 1989. "And to say the case couldn't have been tried in Santa Monica is simply wrong--it could have been tried there. . . . A number of major criminal cases have been tried in Santa Monica."

Before the trial began, according to sources, Garcetti had said privately that he was concerned that a conviction handed down by a mostly white Westside jury would "lack credibility." He also said that the "perception of justice" was very important in this case. At the time, sources said, Garcetti was convinced that prosecutors had overwhelming evidence against Simpson and did not think a Downtown jury would be a handicap.

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