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Jackson Trial Judge Rejects Sidebars and Sideshows

Rodney S. Melville is making it clear he's no Lance Ito, who presided at the O.J. Simpson trial.

January 30, 2005|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Starting with jury selection tomorrow, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville could become known from Santa Maria to Shanghai.

His rulings in the Michael Jackson child-molestation case will be debated in saloons and salons.

At 63, Melville stands to become as instantly famous as Lance Ito, the Los Angeles judge who was at the helm of the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in 1995.

But like many judges who have heard high-profile cases since that nine-month courtroom extravaganza, Melville is doing all he can to prove that he's no Ito.

"If there's one thing the O.J. trial did, it was to create a tremendous fear in the judiciary of not wanting to appear out of control, or otherwise look awkward," said Gary Hengstler, director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for the Courts and Media, which runs classes for judges at the University of Nevada in Reno.

"Now, judges are opting for greater secrecy," said Hengstler, whose center was founded in the wake of the Simpson trial, which cost the public $8 million and drew an estimated 150 million viewers for the verdict.

"They're trying much harder to control the flow of information, with gag orders and limits on what people can say. No judge wants to be the subject of continuing legal education seminars where the talk is all about losing control of the courtroom."

From the start, Melville let it be known that he was in control. To the dismay of media organizations around the world, he banned TV cameras from the courtroom.

While millions were glued to the tube for the Simpson saga, there will be no opportunity in Jackson's trial for lawyers and witnesses to perform before a vast, unseen audience.

For the six months that the trial is expected to last, the world will be watching.

Bloggers and news websites will be reporting nonstop, and nightly reenactments of each day's court action will draw legions to cable TV. Nearly 100 media outlets from the U.S. and abroad plan to cover the start of jury selection -- ordinarily the most routine of events.

"It is no exaggeration to say that this may be the most reported criminal trial to occur in our lifetimes," prosecutors noted in a recent court document. "Allegations of child molestation, false imprisonment, child abduction and extortion will square off against a defense that the child victim and his family are all liars and this is an ill-conceived attempt to make a quick dollar."

Jackson has appeared in Santa Maria courtrooms before. In a 2002 contract dispute, he wore a surgical mask to the witness stand until a judge ordered him to take it off. The next day, he drowsily came to court four hours late.

When Jackson was 20 minutes late for his arraignment last January, it wasn't unexpected, but, in a scolding tone, Melville made clear that it was not to happen again.

"Mr. Jackson, you have started out on the wrong foot with me," the judge told the pop icon. "From now on, I want you to be on time. It is an insult to the court."

At his handful of subsequent court appearances, Jackson has arrived several minutes early.

Like Ito, Melville is known among his colleagues as a companionable and entertaining man, as well as a dedicated jurist. In court, he can come across as Mr. Rogers in a black robe, speaking in slow cadences and seldom raising his voice.

While Ito, who declined to comment for this article, was criticized for allowing the Simpson trial to drag on and on, Melville has kept attorneys in the Jackson case on a tight schedule. In court, he has repeatedly refused their requests for the kind of sidebar consultations between the judge and the lawyers that interrupted the Simpson trial for hours.

Melville has occasionally been curt. Last August, he fined defense lawyer Brian Oxman $1,000 for asking a witness questions that had already been ruled off-limits.

More recently, the judge pulled the rhetorical rug from beneath another Jackson attorney, Robert M. Sanger.

After Melville had issued a ruling on some procedural point, Sanger, who is partial to long-winded exposition, rose from his seat and was cut off.

"Your honor, for the record ..." Sanger began.

"For the record," Melville replied, "sit down!"

In the Simpson case, attorneys slammed the opposition in impromptu news conferences on the courthouse steps. Early in the Jackson case, Melville issued a gag order barring the lawyers, law enforcement officials and court personnel, including himself, from speaking publicly about the case.

"Melville is extremely cautious," said Robert Pugsley, a professor at the Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles and a frequent commentator on the Simpson trial. "He's bending over backward to restrict the access of the press to the case."

In fact, the Jackson case may be the biggest story about which the least is known.

Melville has sealed hundreds of routine documents in the case. Other documents feature page after page of blacked-out paragraphs, interspersed with innocuous phrases and legal citations.

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