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The lasting imprint of O.J.

Ten years later, shoot-from-the-hip legal analysis of marquee trials is a TV staple.

June 11, 2004|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

If you want to see one of the most enduring legacies of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, turn on your TV any weekday afternoon and go to any cable news station.

There they are: Lawyers, arguing passionately. Flinging who-won, who-lost analysis, forecasting the unknowable, letting their professional prejudices show -- former defense attorneys or prosecutors routinely taking the side of their brethren.

The Simpson case, in which Simpson's former wife and one of her friends were murdered in Brentwood 10 years ago Saturday, has been blamed for a lot of things, including racial tension, distrust of the jury system and poor police morale. Those were transient effects. But to this day, every time TV sinks its claws into another spectacular case and sends a familiar corps of legal pundits into battle, it is paying homage to the Simpson trial. Lawyers-turned-TV hosts like Fox News' Greta Van Susteren and MSNBC's Dan Abrams owe their careers to this phenomenon. Print journalists like the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin have crossed over to broadcast audiences in ways they could not have imagined.

There is an informality about the shoot-from-the-hip legal analysis that is bracing, allowing viewers to consider information that juries won't be allowed to hear. It creates an urgent, ESPN-like world in which experts can wonder about the leanings of one juror in the Laci Peterson murder trial because she married a convicted murderer while he was imprisoned.

This is good TV, but it can be misleading and at times beneath the dignity of the legal system, some of the pundits themselves say. Especially when most trials lack the many layers of drama of the Simpson case.

Consider this Peterson-related exchange on Larry King's CNN show last week. King has demonstrated a fascination with the Peterson case, in which Scott Peterson of Modesto is on trial for the Christmas-season 2002, deaths of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son. A caller asked King's panel of Peterson-trial experts whether Scott ever bought any Christmas presents for Laci.

Court TV's Nancy Grace, a sharp-tongued former prosecutor, said Scott had given Laci a Louis Vuitton billfold, adding: "I can't wait to see if that's introduced into evidence. How does it compare to all the jewelry Peterson gave [his mistress] Amber Frey for Christmas?"

"And he went to a Christmas party with Amber instead of his own wife," added another panelist and former prosecutor, Kimberly Guilfoyle.

Which brought this predictable reaction from another panelist, Michael Cardoza, a defense attorney: "I'll tell you what, if these two were prosecuting this case, they would get it shoved back at them so quickly; all they want to do is convict Peterson because of emotion, because he was a cad, because he was having an affair," Cardoza said.

Grace: "No, because he's a killer according to the evidence."

Exchanges like that frustrate USC law professor and sometimes-pundit Erwin Chemerinsky. "A trial is not a daily sports event," he said. "One of the things I resisted very strongly [when commenting during the Simpson trial] was the idea that people want to know who won that day. A trial is a jigsaw puzzle, and you can't appreciate it until later."

A few years ago Chemerinsky and another widely-quoted local law professor, Laurie Levenson, proposed a code of ethics for legal commentators. They sought three simple pledges: comment only on documented facts and testimony, discuss the issues with neutrality and avoid win-lose sports metaphors.

Of course these standards never had a chance.

Sniffs MSNBC's Abrams, "That's a nice suggestion.... If the world were comprised of law professors and lawyers, that would be a lovely standard. But as journalists, we have different obligations -- to find out and report what really happens ... there's no question that pundits get it wrong -- sometimes, the same way political pundits get it wrong."

Adds Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a media watchdog group: "Saying things like 'You never know what will happen,' 'Juries are unpredictable,' or 'We have to wait' does not suit the culture of talk shows that want to be self-contained and have experts and fireworks. Legal ethics and TV ethics are not the same thing."

News analysis of trials is a staple of print journalism. Court TV, which debuted in 1991, won viewers with its coverage of the rape trial of Kennedy family member William Kennedy Smith and the murder trial of the Menendez brothers, harbingers of televised celebrity trials to come. Four years later, when the Simpson trial began, other cable networks such as CNN jumped in, convinced that celebrity trials offered a way to, in Rosenstiel's words, "reassemble the fragmented mass audience." One appeal of trials to TV is that the events last a long time.

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