Gov. Pete Wilson on Monday signed bills spawned by the O.J. Simpson double murder case that make it illegal for witnesses and jurors in criminal trials to sell their stories until the case is finished.
At a ceremony staged to coincide with the start of jury selection in the Simpson case, Wilson also signed several bills aimed at cracking down on repeat perpetrators of domestic violence.
The governor said the immense publicity surrounding the Simpson case demonstrates that the legal system has become a “clearinghouse for hearsay, idle gossip and rumor-mongering about the lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
He said his signature on the two trial publicity bills would “ensure that witnesses and jurors are a force for justice, not fodder for tabloids, and that attorneys will represent their client, not lead a media circus.”
Under the legislation, AB 501 by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and SB 1999 by Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), it will be a crime starting Jan. 1 for jurors, witnesses or potential witnesses to provide information for compensation, a practice known as “checkbook journalism.”
Kopp and Brown contended that the sale of information contaminates the right to a fair trial by providing an incentive to lie. They also said a compensated witness may lose credibility in the eyes of a jury, even if he or she tells the truth.
The legislation was introduced in the wake of reports during the summer that the tabloid media had offered some witnesses thousands of dollars for their stories.
Under the new law, witnesses will be prohibited from accepting compensation for one year from the time a criminal act has occurred or until a final court judgment has been made. Jurors will be barred from engaging in any arrangements for compensation until 90 days after being discharged.
Violations are misdemeanors and can result in a jail term of six months. Additionally, witnesses who take money can be fined up to three times the amount of compensation they received. Jurors are subject to a $1,000 fine.
Brown and Kopp argued that their bills were narrowly drawn to avoid violating constitutional rights to free speech, free press and fair trial. They said, for example, that witnesses to a crime can still provide information to news reporters, but they cannot be paid.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the measures, argued that the interests of assuring a fair trial and protecting the credibility of witnesses could be met by less restrictive alternatives.
“Imagine the results if this statute had been in effect when the Rodney King beating tape was sold to the news media,” the ACLU argued as the legislation neared final passage last month.
As a backdrop for signing the domestic violence legislation, Wilson chose a center for battered women in Sacramento.
Under a pair of bills, SB 739 by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) and SB 18X by Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego), the maximum term for repeated spousal or cohabitant abuse will be increased to five years from four. Also, the fine will be increased to $10,000 from $6,000.
The governor also signed a bill by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), SB 1278, which authorizes judges to seize the guns of those under a domestic violence restraining order. Another bill, AB 3034 by Assemblywoman Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), establishes a registry in the Department of Justice to keep track of protective restraining orders.
Kathleen Brown, Wilson’s Democratic opponent, accused the governor of using the Simpson case and the attention focused on domestic violence to call attention to himself.
“The truth is that Pete Wilson is trying to cover up his own failed record on domestic violence,” Brown said in a statement. “Under Pete Wilson, there are more shelters for abused dogs than for battered women.”