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For Hard-Core Trial Buffs, It's Virtual O.J.

TV: Cable channel E! reenacts highlights from the civil trial.

November 09, 1996|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"O.J. Simpson" dutifully looked solemn as he sat next to his "attorney, Robert C. Baker," listening to testimony against him in the double murder trial.

When "court" adjourned, "Simpson" grabbed his shirt bag and rushed off. He had to get to an acting audition, plus prepare for a jazz singing gig later that night.

In a Mid-Wilshire high-rise, miles away from where former actor O.J. Simpson sits uncomfortably in a Santa Monica courtroom during his second trial in the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman, actors posing as Simpson, his defense team, prosecutors and witnesses stage their abbreviated version of the real-life drama for broadcast across the nation.

It's not O.J. It's Faux J.

Since the start of testimony last month in Simpson's civil trial, the "O.J. Players," armed with trial transcripts, have been gathering weekday mornings to reenact verbatim highlights for E! Entertainment Television. The scenes, which cover proceedings of the previous day, are then shown that evening during the cable network's one-hour recap, "The O.J. Civil Trial."

The featured members of the troupe are from local stage productions or have had small parts in movies and television. Some look like their real-life counterparts. Some don't.

Six-foot-two actor Stephen Wayne Eskridge has an uncanny resemblance at times to the athletically built Simpson. Actor Howard Miller is more likely to be mistaken for Simpson friend Robert Kardashian, the role he was originally submitted for, than lead prosecutor Daniel Petrocelli. The jet-black hair of actor Calvin Jung has to be whitened for him to look more like Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki.

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The reenactments are taped at E's studios on a no-frills set that approximates the look of the Santa Monica courtroom. Actors use TelePrompTers when saying their lines. Director Scott Reiniger helms the action, keeping his eye on a monitor while instructing the actors on their movements and phrasing.

"Look simple and relaxed, O.J.," Reiniger told Eskridge on Wednesday as the actor clenched his jaw and stared at the witness stand where "LAPD criminalist Dennis Fung," being played by Roger H. Fan, was testifying. Reiniger, wearing a black baseball cap, told the ensemble to "focus on each other, concentrate and listen to each other."

Executives at E!, an entertainment-oriented channel more known for covering movie premieres and offering light fare such as "Talk Soup" and "The Gossip Show" than for its news operation, says it is doing the reenactments to satisfy the insatiable public appetite for Simpson information, and as a service to interested viewers unhappy about the banning of cameras in the courtroom by Fujisaki.

"People want to be inside that courtroom, and this is the best way for them to be there," said John Rieber, vice president of programming for E!, adding that being accurate in the reenactments is the network's "highest priority."

Rieber said he is encouraged by viewer response to the reenactments and that ratings have jumped substantially. "The O.J. Civil Trial," which airs live at 5 p.m. and is repeated at 10 p.m., has increased viewership 94% over the various programs that appeared in those time periods during the last quarter of 1995.

But E!, which reaches 41 million households, declined to release exact viewership numbers. Cable channels typically draw only a fraction of the audience of broadcast networks.

Some reaction to the reenactments among trial watchers and media experts has been almost as divided as the post-criminal trial sentiments toward Simpson, who was acquitted last year in the double murders.

"It's clearly not anything that a viable news organization would do," said Erik Sorenson, executive producer and executive vice president of Court TV. "The people who are reading these transcripts have not seen the testimony, so they have no idea what the body language is, what the phrasing is."

CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said, "As a news organization, reenactments do not fall within the CBS news guidelines and standards."

But the re-creation of the trial highlights has also received its share of praise and support from legal experts.

Laurie Levenson, associate dean at Loyola Law School, said the reenactments "were very well done and captured the essence of both the highlights and how tedious at times the proceedings can be."

And USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said: "Doing these kinds of reenactments is absolutely ethical. I don't blame E! for doing them, I blame Judge Fujisaki for not allowing the public to see for themselves what's going on. The only way they can be informed is through media reports, and this comes the closest to letting them see with their own eyes and ears what's happening."

Levenson added that the participation of legal expert Charles Rosenberg in E!'s coverage heightens the network's accountability. Rosenberg is at the courthouse every day and provides commentary on the daily program.

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