Judge Shows Faith in Jurors and Doubts About the Media's Influence

Although Judge Lance A. Ito has been irately critical of the O.J. Simpson news coverage, it appears he doesn't think people are taking what they read and see very seriously.

In recent weeks, Ito has denounced news leaks about evidence and even threatened to pull the plug on television coverage.

But if he really believed that the millions of words and pictures were a threat, Ito probably would not have turned down a prosecution request Wednesday designed to protect jurors from the overwhelming tide of Simpson news.

Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman had asked that Ito interrupt jury selection, now in progress, until a hearing is completed on the admissibility of DNA evidence. DNA testing of blood seems to be the prosecution's main weapon in trying to prove Simpson killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in a crime that, at least so far, has no witnesses. As a result, the DNA hearing will be the focus of massive coverage, speculation, and--if patterns continue--of leaks.

Hodgman objected to Ito's plan of picking 12 jurors and alternates before the DNA hearing. He thought it was wrong to pick the panelists and send them home during the hearing only to recall them when the trial begins.

Under present plans, Hodgman said, "We will send our 20 jurors out into society and ask them not to read, not to listen, not to peek at the all-pervasive media. That is an unrealistic and impractical solution."

"Your honor," he said, "in the name of common sense and reducing the potential for mistrial, I ask the court to adopt our proposal."

The judge, however, accepted the defense argument that the jurors and alternates will follow Ito's orders to ignore news coverage because they respect the obligations of jury duty.

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Some of my colleagues said it was inconsistent of Ito to denounce the press, and then turn down the prosecution on this point.

I thought Judge Ito's decision made sense.

It showed an admirable faith in the jury system. It indicated that Ito feels jurors take their jobs seriously enough to ignore media distractions.

This view is supported by polls showing that although the public had avidly read and watched almost everything about the case, most people had not been influenced enough by the coverage to have made up their minds whether Simpson is guilty.

A Times Poll of Los Angeles County residents taken last week provided some fascinating insights into this point.

We've already reported that half of those surveyed said they haven't formed an opinion about his guilt or innocence. A substantial number of others said they were leaning one way or another, but hadn't made up their minds. Only 19% were certain of Simpson's guilt and just 9% were sure of his innocence.

What's really interesting are the omnivorous reading and viewing habits of this largely undecided sampling of Angelenos.

A total of 66% read a daily newspaper at least a few times a week. More--93%--are a-few-times- a-week local TV news watchers. Interestingly, the comparable figure for tabloid TV shows such as "Hard Copy" was 33% and for the weekly supermarket tabloids 30%.

But all this information, most of it coming from the traditional sources of newspapers and television news broadcasts, has not, as they say in politics, moved many voters.

Obviously, the prosecution doubts this apparent open-mindedness will carry into the jury box. But that's not giving jurors much credit.

Prospective jurors are a rebellious lot. I've been one, and complained plenty about the bad conditions. But once on a jury, citizens' attitudes change. For serving on a jury is the most important and consuming civic duty most Americans experience.

Orders from judges have real impact, coming down from a robed presence on an elevated bench. There is a solemnity to jury duty. Most jurors want to do a good job.

Attorney Gerald L. Chaleff, a member of a court-appointed committee trying to improve jury conditions, told me that "when a person gets on a jury, the vast majority try their hardest to obey all the court's rules and decide the case based on the evidence.

"You are judging a human being, and that adds to the import of what you are doing. You interact with your fellow jurors and you see that they think it's important. Then you sit down and deliberate and you see the intensity and you are all caught up with what you are doing and how important it is."

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This is a revolutionary idea, that old-fashioned civic obligation is stronger than the vaunted power of the press. Unfashionable, too. It could destroy a cottage industry of journalism seminars, featuring academics, editors and reporters ruminating about the best ways of wielding the great power they believe they hold in their hands.

In court Wednesday, Judge Ito seemed to be saying they aren't all that influential. The media do a lot of shouting, but not everybody is listening.

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