From the Archives: Capturing O.J. Simpson on film as 1995 'not guilty' verdicts are read

Myung J. Chun, now a Los Angeles Times staff photographer, was the pool photographer working the remote camera in the courtroom when the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdicts were announced.

Chun writes:

The Simpson verdict photos on Oct. 3, 1995, were the result of months of hard work, great planning and a healthy dose of luck.

The images were unique because I shot the photos in the hallway outside the courtroom using a remotely operated still camera. In 1995 the camera setup was an achievement as we didn’t have the kind of remote and photographic technology we do now.

Back then, I was a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Daily News in the San Fernando Valley and I was one of five rotating pool photographers who provided photo coverage with this remote camera. The other photographers in the rotating pool were Rick Meyer, Los Angeles Times; Reed Saxon, Associated Press; Sam Mircovich, Reuters, and Vince Bucci, Agence France-Presse. We were assigned specific pool coverage days -- mine was Tuesday.

During the pretrial photo planning, we knew that we needed to have a camera near the front of the courtroom to be able to see Simpson’s face not just during the trial and, more importantly, to have a clear view of him when the verdicts were read. There was already a photo spot in the courtroom but it was in the back, which gave a rear-side view of the defendant and there was a risk of the view getting blocked on the last day.

Court TV had installed a remote camera near the front of the courtroom, on a flat deck above the jury box, and we realized that that would be the ideal spot for us too. It was high and had an unobstructed view of the courtroom and the defendant’s table.

Nikon helped build the remote assembly which the pool members rented for the duration of the trial.The camera was a film-based Nikon F4 with a 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens enclosed in a modified and soundproofed Pelican case. It was fitted with a miniature video camera that peered into the camera’s eyepiece giving an exact view of the framing, the auto focus reticle and the camera’s exposure settings. An electric motor and servo assembly drove the zoom lens. The case was mounted on a motorized head that allowed pan and tilt movements.

The only “real” digital camera at the time was the very new Nikon NC2000, but the 1.3-megapixel images were too small and too low in quality and the camera itself was huge. Also, the pool shooters weren’t familiar with the camera and if something went wrong, troubleshooting or finding a replacement would have been difficult.

Cables were run out from the assembly to the hallway and into a camera control box, and two small TV monitors -- one for the camera and the other one taking a direct feed from Court TV, which provided the video pool, so we could hear what was being said inside the courtroom. The TV feed also acted as a second pair of eyes so the photographers could see what was going on in the courtroom.

On the control box, one toggle switch controlled the pan/tilt and another one controlled the camera’s zoom. A third plunger-type button controlled the auto focus (by pressing halfway down) and firing the shutter release.

The lighting was good, as far as courtrooms went, so Fujifilm Fujicolor Press 800 in the 36-exposure roll was used, which gave an exposure reading of 1/60th of a second at f/2.8. The film was also available in ISO 1600, giving a one-stop faster shutter speed, but it was too grainy especially if the images were going to be enlarged considerably. The 36-exposure roll meant shooting single frames and picking your shots.

Access to the camera was allowed during the court breaks for film or battery changes. The film would be dropped into an envelope with the caption information and then handed to a motorcycle messenger who drove to the Associated Press office several blocks from the courthouse where the roll would be processed, edited and transmitted to members.

Only five photographers were chosen to operate the camera throughout the trial to make sure we were totally familiar with the equipment and to avoid breaking it. If one of the other operators was sick or on vacation, another would fill in, and that’s what I did on Oct. 2, 1995, the day before the verdict.

I was filling in for the Times photographer that Monday when word came in the afternoon that the jury had reached a verdict and that it would be announced the following day on Tuesday, which was my normal coverage day.

On Oct. 3, I came to the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center (then known as the Criminal Courts Building) much earlier to set up and double-check the equipment. I had confidence in the gear because the assembly worked fairly well throughout the trial with the exception of some minor adjustments and fixes that were all sorted out by this time. But lingering in the back of my mind were visions of a total equipment meltdown and that I would have to flee the country if I screwed this up.

Extra deputies were brought in for security. The courtroom was at capacity and the outside hallway accepted the overflow. Since I was the only one who could see and hear what was happening inside, several people asked me to announce the verdict when it was read.

The packed hallway became eerily quiet as court began.

I slowly moved the camera around the courtroom to get my safe shots before the verdicts were read -- O. J. Simpson and his team, Deputy District Attys. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, the Goldman and Brown families, Simpson’s family, and Judge Lance Ito.

During the reading of the verdict, I decided to keep the framing loose on Simpson for two reasons: I didn’t know how he was going to react and I didn’t want to risk cutting off body parts by being too tight, and the zooming on the remote camera was extremely slow. It took about 20 seconds to cover the full range and I didn’t want to be zooming while he was reacting.

When the first verdict was read, I repeated the words “not guilty” and the hallway exploded in cheers and groans of disbelief. Inside the courtroom, attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. was slapping a relieved Simpson on the shoulder and clutching his client in victory. I shot image after image while keeping an eye on the frame counter.

After the second “not guilty” verdict and several more frames, I moved the camera down to catch a shot of the dejected prosecutors. The Court TV monitor showed the grief-stricken Goldman family, so I followed up by getting a few shots. I then moved the camera to focus on the Simpson family before returning to Simpson himself, hoping I hadn’t missed anything.

When I brought the camera back to him, I checked the counter and saw that I only had a handful of frames left. I had shot everything I needed, so I kept the camera on Simpson and waited for him to do something. He had made some facial expressions but wasn’t physically expressive. I had my thumb on the shutter release, auto focus locked in, and waited and waited. He raised his clenched fists just long enough to mouth the words “thank you” to the jurors. I quickly shot a frame and did a quick follow-up and the moment was over.

I had to retrieve and ship the film immediately, but because of all the added security and a new deputy who didn’t recognize me, I couldn’t get inside the courtroom. After a long 10 minutes a bailiff I recognized came out and let me in.

The photos were published worldwide. The verdict falling on my day was just luck of the draw and I know that any of the other pool photographers, who also spent nearly nine months covering this trial, would have done a fine job on the last day.In the following days and weeks, I did a couple of TV interviews to talk about the verdict photos. One was with “Entertainment Tonight” and another was with the BBC, which flew me to London to take part in a program looking back at the big news events of that year.

As for the negatives, they’re in the Daily News film archive where I labeled and filed them in 1995 along with myriad other assignments from that year.

This post was originally published on Oct. 3, 2010.

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