Murder Trial of Simpson Begins : Courts: More than half of the first 200 jury candidates are dismissed because of hardship of serving. Prosecution wants final selection made after DNA hearings end.
More than 200 prospective jurors in the O.J. Simpson case reported for duty Monday, slipping into a courthouse awash in demonstrators and news media and officially kicking off one of the most celebrated murder trials in American history.
Monday’s session marked the first time that prospective jurors were questioned about their availability to be part of a trial that could last six months. The jurors who are selected could be forced to cut off ties with friends, family and jobs if the judge agrees to sequester the panel, as prosecutors have asked.
Anticipating that many people will not be able to endure such a hardship, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito had 1,000 prospective jurors contacted and questioned about their availability. The first batch of 219 people reported to the Downtown criminal courthouse Monday, making their way into the building unnoticed despite hundreds of reporters and a smaller collection of protesters who gathered beneath overcast skies on a muggy afternoon.
As he began the process of questioning 63 prospective jurors whose answers to questions about possible hardships had been ambiguous, Ito retired with the lawyers, three news reporters and court staff into a small room adjoining the jury assembly area. There, the first number he drew was for potential juror number 0032. For most of his storied football career, Simpson wore the number 32.
“I don’t know if this is an omen,” said Ito as Simpson nodded his head slowly in agreement.
Even before the first prospective jurors set foot inside the building, many had made it clear that they would have grave difficulties participating. In response to written questions, 90 said they would suffer serious personal hardships if required to sit on the panel.
Many of those said their employers would not pay for long jury service. Others said they had personal responsibilities that would make it impossible to be away from home for so long.
Once Monday’s batch of possible jurors had assembled, Ito informed them of the job ahead.
“I’ve never seen a case as unusual as this case,” he told the prospective jurors who gathered in the Criminal Court Building’s cavernous assembly room. “This is probably the most important decision you will make in your personal life. It is the most important decision of any American citizen. I need a fair jury.”
Within minutes of their arrival, more than 80 panelists who said they had serious personal hardships were excused.
Later during the one-on-one questioning, a woman broke into tears, giving several reasons she could not serve. She was excused. A man who seemed so overcome with emotion that he had difficulty speaking told Ito: “I have nightmares.” He too was excused.
Also questioned was a man who only half-jokingly said the thought of being sequestered until February, 1995, put him in mind of the snake pit in the movie “Indiana Jones.”
“Could you still serve?” the judge asked.
“Yeah, but I still worry about the snakes,” the man answered.
Ito would not excuse him.
The original batch of 219 prospective panelists was a racially diverse group that included people of all ages. Those who indicated they had no problems that would prevent them from spending as much as six months on the trial appeared older than those who were dismissed early on.
The 100 prospective jurors who were left Monday after the excusals will be questioned later about their exposure to coverage of the case and about any predispositions that might make it difficult for them to be impartial.
As the jury screening got under way, Simpson appeared confident and relaxed. Dressed in a blue suit and flanked by attorneys Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Robert L. Shapiro, along with other members of his high-powered legal defense team, Simpson stood before the prospective jurors. It was the first time he faced some of the people who may decide if he spends the rest of his life in prison or returns home to care for his two young children left motherless by the murder of Simpson’s ex-wife.
Addressing the prospective jurors, Simpson said simply: “Good afternoon.” He then sat down and folded his hands in his lap.
Later, in the smaller room, as he waited for the questioning to begin, Simpson hummed a tune and sang softly to himself the words “A new day has begun.”
Since his arrest after a nationally televised low-speed chase June 17, Simpson has steadfastly denied any role in the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, proclaiming at his Superior Court arraignment that he is “absolutely, 100% not guilty.”
The bodies of the two victims were discovered June 13, shortly after midnight, and the grisly find triggered an intense criminal investigation that has riveted the nation’s attention ever since.
Given the enormous crush of publicity surrounding the case, both sides believe it will be impossible to find jurors who have not heard about it. But the judge and lawyers are looking for 12 panelists and eight alternates who can put aside what they have heard and rely solely on the evidence presented in court to come to a verdict.
To help them in that task, the judge and lawyers have collaborated on a 75-page questionnaire probing jurors about their exposure to the case and their feelings about topics related to it. All of the jurors who were called Monday and who were not excused began filling out the questionnaires.
When Ito told the group how voluminous the questionnaire is, they groaned audibly. He warned them that the completed forms will be given to journalists. Before that happens, names and identifying information about the prospective jurors will be deleted.
First, however, Ito must identify people who can afford to serve. That means finding people who can effectively give up six months of their lives to serve as jurors--a job that pays $5 per day plus 10 cents a mile, one way, to the courthouse.
Monday morning, prosecutors and defense attorneys reviewed the answers supplied by the first 219 prospective panelists to the pretrial questions, agreeing to excuse many of them immediately.
In one case, the prospective juror was a physically disabled retiree. “It seems to me this would be an act of futility to ask this person to stay,” Ito said.
Other prospective jurors said they would have difficulty serving because their employers only pay them for limited jury service. One possible juror wrote that his or her employer would only cover 30 days.
“I anticipate we will use (that) up in short order,” Ito said, but he and the lawyers agreed to question that person further to see whether the loss of income would pose too great a hardship.
By day’s end, 112 people from the initial batch of prospective jurors had been dismissed. The process is scheduled to resume this afternoon, and Ito expressed his satisfaction that it was going well so far.
Still, the complexity of picking a jury in the Simpson case is compounded by what is expected to be a prolonged hearing on the admissibility of DNA evidence in the case. Prosecutors are expected to seek to use DNA test results suggesting that blood from the scene of the crime came from Simpson. Preliminary DNA tests of a glove found outside Simpson’s house also have indicated that the glove, which matches one found at the murder scene, contained the blood of both victims and possibly Simpson as well.
Also being scrutinized are blood stains from Simpson’s Ford Bronco and driveway and a pair of socks found in his bedroom. Although local television station KNBC has reported that DNA tests showed that blood on at least one of those socks matched Nicole Simpson’s, other sources have told The Times that only conventional blood tests have been run so far on those socks. While conventional blood testing can limit the number of possible sources of blood, it is not nearly as discriminating as the most precise DNA tests.
The DNA arguments are expected to mount in coming weeks, and they complicate jury selection because both sides expect to spend as much as a month debating the issue in court--an argument that Ito must keep jurors from hearing despite the intense media attention that it is sure to draw.
While the DNA hearing is under way, jurors cannot be present since the purpose of the hearing is to determine what should be admitted into evidence and what should not, and jurors may not base their verdicts on anything but evidence in the case. Because of that, prosecutors are concerned about any plan that would allow jurors to be picked and then permitted to return home for up to one month while the two sides dispute DNA evidence.
“These jurors, who will know with certainty that they will be charged with the responsibility of deciding this case, will be far more intensely curious about the evidence than they had previously been prior to their selection as jurors,” prosecutors said in a motion filed last week and unsealed Monday. “Upon the jury’s return to court, after the lengthy hiatus, they will have to be individually (questioned) again to determine to what degree their exposure to pretrial publicity has rendered them unfit to remain as jurors. That some of those jurors will be deemed unfit, under the unprecedented circumstances of this case, is almost a foregone conclusion.”
Instead, prosecutors proposed that Judge Ito conduct just the first phase of jury selection now, eliminating any prospective juror who could not serve because of the length of the case but deferring the individual questioning needed to select the final panel. They recommended that once the so-called hardship questioning is concluded, all the remaining prospective panelists could return home, only to be recalled once the DNA hearings have been concluded, possibly in November.
At that point, the judge and lawyers would resume jury selection by questioning the remaining panelists individually to weed out those with biases, prosecutors recommended. Ito called that an “unusual motion” and said he would consider it Wednesday.
As the trial got under way, the frenzy surrounding the case rose to a crescendo Downtown: Monday morning, 56 television cameras jostled for position with an array of protesters on the sidewalks in front of the Criminal Courts Building.
Some of the demonstrators wore buttons and T-shirts that proclaimed Simpson’s innocence, others represented a grab-bag of religious and political causes. One man sold buttons with the logo: “O.J. Juror Reject. Didn’t Make the Cut.”
Inside, meanwhile, a lawyer for The Times filed a last-minute motion seeking greater access to the jury selection process.
Attorney Kelli L. Sager met with Ito Monday morning, and the judge then agreed to expand the pool of reporters who would cover the process that day. Three designated pool reporters--Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press, Andrea Ford from The Times and Greg LaMotte of CNN--were allowed to observe Monday’s questioning of prospective jurors.
Those spots will be rotated to other correspondents as the process continues. When it comes time to individually question prospective jurors, Ito will move the sessions to his courtroom, where an audio transmission will allow hundreds of other reporters ensconced at the courthouse to listen in.
He still has not ruled on whether to end television coverage of the trial or to expel KNBC reporters from the courthouse--two moves he is contemplating because of the KNBC reports last week regarding the alleged DNA tests of Simpson’s socks.
Ito said last week that he wanted to hold a hearing on those ideas this week. He has set aside Wednesday morning to hear some remaining arguments about evidence in the case, but has not yet said when he plans to hold the session regarding the television coverage of the case.
* A CHAOTIC SCENE: Journalists, onlookers, demonstrators jostle outside court. B1
THE SIMPSON CASE. A daily update. Trial Highlights
A look at some of the key events in the O.J. Simpson murder trial on Monday:
* Summary: Jury selection began with the first questioning of more than 200 prospective jurors. Many were dismissed because they could not serve on a case that may last six months. Others will be questioned further.
* Court action: In response to a request by The Times, Judge Lance A. Ito agreed to expand the pool of reporters tapped to cover the jury selection process. Ito unsealed a motion by prosecutors seeking to delay final jury selection until after a hotly contested DNA hearing is completed.
* Outside the courtroom: News crews and journalists from throughout the nation descended on the Criminal Courts Building. By midday, dozens of cameras were on hand to record the opening of case.