After a series of testy exchanges between a prosecutor and a prospective juror in the O.J. Simpson murder trial Thursday, Simpson's attorneys accused government lawyers of treating black jury candidates differently than others.
It was the latest defense attack in a case in which race has long loomed as an issue, and prosecutors immediately denounced it as a calculated public relations tactic.
The defense comments appeared carefully choreographed, with Simpson's two lead attorneys simultaneously addressing reporters on different floors of the Downtown Criminal Courts Building.
"If there is a pattern, we'll be asking the judge to look into it," Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of the lawyers, told reporters on the 12th floor. "We're really concerned about the tenor of the questions and the way they go after certain jurors."
Meanwhile, in the lobby, Simpson attorney Robert L. Shapiro was telling the rest of the press corps: "It implies an insidious effort to try to get black jurors removed for cause because they are black, because they have black heroes, and because O.J. Simpson is one of them. There's no other reason."
In addition to the issue of how black prospective jurors are being questioned, defense sources accuse prosecutors of using a disproportionate number of their challenges so far to seek the removal of black panelists.
Prosecutors have long said that they hope to impanel a racially mixed jury to hear the murder case against Simpson, who has pleaded not guilty to the June 12 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Simpson is black; both victims were white.
Of the 33 panelists who remain in contention after in-depth questioning, 18 are black. Eight are white, three are Latino, two are Native American and two are of mixed race.
On Thursday, prosecutors declined to respond directly to the latest attack by Simpson's lawyers, but accused their adversaries of trying to score points with the public.
"This appears to be just the latest in a series of efforts to try to manipulate public opinion," Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman said. "In the midst of jury selection, I think that is very inappropriate and unfair."
Although defense attorneys have privately been discussing the issue for several days, it flared up publicly Thursday after an unusually pointed exchange between Hodgman and a 71-year-old black South-Central man who had difficulty remembering the answers he gave on a juror questionnaire last month and who became increasingly defensive as the prosecutor questioned him.
When the man said he had heard something about a polygraph, Hodgman asked: "Do you know what a polygraph is?"
The man took offense at that question and others posed by Hodgman, at one point exclaiming: "You're pumping me as if I'm on trial. You're sort of riling me."
Cochran, a longtime admirer of Hodgman, nevertheless sharply criticized his counterpart for the way he treated the man and another prospective juror earlier this week. In the earlier exchange, Hodgman pressed a black woman with questions about her paranoid schizophrenic brother until she broke down in tears, prompting Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to intervene and apologize.
"I don't think I'd make a juror cry," Cochran said Thursday. "I don't think I'd make a juror say: 'I'm riled up.' "
Defense attorneys also were angry about the spirited, and ultimately successful, campaign that prosecutors waged to have another black woman excused from the panel after she expressed doubts about some aspects of the prosecution case but insisted that she could be fair despite those doubts.
After that woman was excused, Shapiro was furious, saying: "My blood is boiling."
Cochran said he too was bothered by the prosecutors' determination to have that panelist removed: "They finally got her excused. She said she could be fair, but they persisted and got her off."
Although he declined to take questions about jury selection, Hodgman said prosecutors were not attacking anyone.
"We are proceeding very, very carefully and very, very cautiously," he said. "From the very beginning, I've sought to have fairness and humanity for our individual jurors."
The man who was at the center of Thursday's exchange was allowed to remain on the jury panel, but three others were excused. Since questioning of the prospective jurors began, 63 have been interviewed by the judge and lawyers, and 30 have been excused.
Most of those who have been dismissed have admitted violating Judge Ito's order that they avoid all television, radio, newspapers and magazines--and that they not so much as enter a bookstore. Ito imposed that order Oct. 18 after the release of a salacious book that allegedly tells the story of Nicole Simpson's final months.
Since imposing that order, Ito has taken a hard line with prospective jurors, dismissing any who have had the slightest contact with media. Among other prospective jurors who have been excused in recent days are a man who watched cartoons with his grandson and a woman who watched a Barbara Stanwyck movie on television.
Thursday, a 29-year-old woman from the Santa Clarita Valley said she had watched videotaped episodes of "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place." Her husband made the tapes, deleting the commercials as he went. But not even those precautions were enough to satisfy Ito.
"The order is no TV at this point," he said. "Watching tapes of TV programs is a no-no."
Some prospective jurors have been excused for other reasons as well. Thursday, one man said he was bothered by interracial marriage and believed that blacks were responsible for violent crime in his Harbor Gateway neighborhood. After a brief conference with the lawyers at the bench, Ito excused him.
Although jury selection has lasted longer than a month, more than 20 candidates remain to be questioned from the first group alone. If 12 jurors and eight alternates cannot be found from that group, more than 200 other prospective jurors have completed detailed questionnaires and could be called in for interviews and possible service.
In the meantime, Ito still is trying to resolve a number of issues that will help establish the parameters for the trial. Thursday, Ito returned to an issue that has surfaced in varying ways for weeks--the admissibility of evidence seized from Simpson's Ford Bronco.
The defense has mounted a number of challenges to that evidence, first arguing that the warrant authorizing police to seize the car was improperly drafted, then maintaining that police were wrong to keep re-entering the car for subsequent searches once it was in their custody.
Ito rejected both those arguments, but the defense has mounted another attack on some of the Bronco evidence, arguing that a June 15 break-in of the car rendered anything taken from it after that date inadmissible. Among other things, police searched the car after that time with a substance known as Luminol and discovered what investigators say was blood.
On Thursday, Simpson's lawyers argued that the break-in of the car--a tow-yard employee acknowledged entering the car and removing receipts signed by O.J. Simpson and his ex-wife--broke the official chain of custody of the vehicle. They hoped to show that police supervision of the vehicle was so lax that evidence inside the car could now be unreliable.
Trying to head off that argument, prosecutors called Detective Richard Haro, one of the LAPD investigators who worked on the Simpson case, who testified that he had placed a hold on the car. The tow-yard manager agreed, saying that the car was stored in a closed facility.
Still, Simpson's attorneys emphasized that once the car had been broken into, there was no way to guarantee that evidence found after that was untainted. Subsequent searches revealed more bloodstains and other items, including a missing light bulb that investigators have speculated Simpson removed to avoid illuminating the cab of the car as he was entering or leaving it on the night of the murders.
But without clear supervision of the car, there is no way to tell who removed the light bulb, much less to conclude what that person's motive might have been, said Simpson attorney Gerald F. Uelmen. "We are left to speculation," he argued.
Uelmen also used the session to reiterate an essential part of Simpson's defense: that investigators and others connected with the case were sloppy and careless in investigating the murders with which Simpson is charged. Under questioning from Uelmen, for instance, Haro acknowledged that he did not check a box on a form used to request a special hold on vehicles.
And the tow-yard manager, Robert B. Jones, admitted that people could have entered the vehicle without his knowledge and that he had failed to promptly notify the LAPD of the break-in despite city regulations requiring that he do so "without delay."
The attacks on the investigators have not succeeded in persuading Ito to disallow much of the evidence in the murder case, but Simpson's attorneys hope that the accumulation of those criticisms will undermine the prosecution case in the eyes of jurors.
Ito took the latest request under submission, saying he needed to review transcripts of a previous hearing before issuing his ruling.
* COURTROOM SCIENCE: Precedent upheld on scientifically acceptable evidence. A3