A predominantly black group of eight women and four men drawn from across Los Angeles County was sworn in Thursday to serve as the jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, capping five weeks of prolonged and detailed questioning.
The 12 people may not ultimately be the panel that weighs Simpson's fate, as they will be supplemented by 15 alternates to be selected in the coming weeks. Should anything happen to any of the original 12 panelists--from illness to exposure to publicity in the high-profile case--the affected juror will be replaced by an alternate, allowing the trial to go on.
Even though Thursday's development does not mark the end of jury selection, it constitutes a milestone in a process that began Sept. 26 with each jury prospect completing an exhaustive, 79-page questionnaire. Questioning of the jury panel began and ended in irony: The first panelist called in for questioning by Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito was juror number 32, the number Simpson wore throughout most of his football career; the last one put in the jury box Thursday worked for 25 years for Hertz, a company that Simpson has represented as a spokesman for years.
Ito thanked the panelists for their patience and expressed his deep faith in the jurors, who will be asked to set aside any preconceptions about the case and decide whether Simpson is guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman on June 12--a charge he has steadfastly denied.
"I want to welcome you to the league of judges because that's what you are now," Ito said. "I know you can rise to the occasion, despite the unusual circumstances. I know you will do a good job in this case, and I trust you."
In the Simpson case--where a black sports icon is accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend, both of them white--race and domestic violence have emerged as important background issues and the makeup of the jury has been the subject of intense scrutiny.
Some analysts believe blacks may tend to support Simpson or to be skeptical of law enforcement officials. And prosecutors may attempt to introduce evidence of spousal battery in the case, a line of argument that some legal experts say may be most compelling to female jurors.
The jury was agreed upon Thursday after each side used 10 of its 20 peremptory challenges, which allow attorneys reject any prospect with whom they feel uncomfortable, as long as race or gender is not the reason. Simpson's lawyers used their challenges to excuse five whites, one Latino, two Native Americans, one black and one person of mixed race. Prosecutors excused eight blacks and two whites from the pool--which, like the jury, was predominantly black.
The 12 people selected Thursday include eight blacks, one white, two Latinos and one man who is part Native American and part white. That is a far higher percentage of blacks than live in Los Angeles County, and one that legal experts said should hearten Simpson's attorneys.
"That is just the luck of the draw," Robert L. Shapiro, one of Simpson's lead lawyers, said of the racial composition of the jury.
The members of the panel come from throughout Los Angeles County--three from Inglewood, two from South-Central Los Angeles and the rest from communities such as Burbank, Long Beach and Norwalk. Six said they had a high school education or less. Two went on for vocational training or community college, and two more either attended college or have university degrees.
On the issue of DNA testing, which is expected to figure prominently in the case, just one juror finds it somewhat reliable, according to the questionnaires filled out by every jury prospect. The other 11 said they had no opinion on that topic.
Two said they had experienced domestic violence either as children or adults. And one recalled being so frustrated in a domestic relationship as to consider using violence at one time.
Every juror selected Thursday had seen the famous freeway pursuit leading up to Simpson's arrest, but only four said they ever saw Simpson play football. All 12 said they had no opinion about Simpson's guilt or innocence.
The sifting of the panel took all day Thursday and was a delicate mixture of legal chess and chemistry. Attorneys for Simpson and the prosecution mixed and matched prospective jurors throughout a painstaking session, searching for a group that both sides would accept. Prosecutors opened the day by removing a white, ponytailed tile salesman from Pasadena, and defense attorneys surprised the courtroom by then accepting the first 12 jurors they were offered.
"Your honor, we believe we have a fair and impartial jury," said Shapiro, adding that the defense would "accept the jury as currently constituted."
But when prosecutors used their next turn to challenge a black woman, Simpson's lawyers joined the fray. For the rest of the day, the two sides traded challenges. During the morning, prosecutors removed a series of black jury prospects.
By midafternoon, it was prosecutors who appeared most satisfied with the 12 jurors in the box: The government lawyers accepted the panel three consecutive times. Defense attorneys continued challenging jury prospects, however, and at one point a 71-year-old black man whom Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman had angered with his questioning was called to sit in the jury box.
He had barely taken his chair before prosecutors excused him.
Always lurking in the background were the issues of race and gender, and the opposing attorneys demanded explanations every time their adversaries removed a prospective juror for what the other side considered suspicious reasons.
That was particularly pronounced during the morning session: Five of the prosecution's first six peremptory challenges were used to remove blacks, drawing fire from the defense.
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of Simpson's lead attorneys, said during the lunch break that prosecutors were unfairly targeting black prospective jurors and the defense lawyers were demanding explanations. "They're giving all the excuses," Cochran said of the rival attorneys.
After prosecutors tried to excuse a 32-year-old black woman from South-Central Los Angeles, Shapiro objected. Both sides approached the bench, and defense attorneys asked Ito to keep the woman in the room while the two sides debated her dismissal.
That conference took place out of earshot of prospective jurors and reporters, but defense attorneys said later that they protested the woman's removal because they believed prosecutors were seeking to remove prospective jurors because of their race. Exercising peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner is prohibited by the state and federal Supreme Courts.
Faced with the defense challenge, prosecutors had the obligation to state a race-neutral reason for seeking to remove the woman. Their answer apparently satisfied Ito: Once the conference had concluded, he told the young woman, a post office security guard from South-Central, that she could leave.
Crestfallen, she trudged from the courtroom.
Even as defense attorneys were accusing prosecutors of using their challenges in a racially discriminatory way, prosecutors were countering with objections of their own.
Despite Shapiro's earlier pronouncements that he wanted as many women as possible on the jury, Simpson's lawyers used their first two challenges to remove women from the panel.
That drew fire from prosecutors: The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year extended the ban on racially based peremptory challenges to prevent the removal of prospective jurors because of their sex. In addition, the California Supreme Court has long barred sex-based peremptory challenges.
Ultimately, however, Ito accepted the defense's explanation and excused the two women.
As the jury selection process dragged through the afternoon, the ranks of prospective jurors thinned. Prosecutors excused a black man who had expressed some misgivings about Nicole Simpson's lifestyle as portrayed by the media. Defense attorneys dismissed a Latino woman whose brother works for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Simpson's lawyers excused a 42-year-old black woman who said in her questionnaire that "men should not physically hit women." She was replaced on the panel by the man with whom Hodgman had earlier sparred during one-on-one questioning. That man said at the time that Hodgman was "getting me riled"; prosecutors had him removed rapidly Thursday.
One by one, those jury prospects and others gathered their things and left, replaced by panelists who joined the remaining prospective jurors in 27 seats reserved for the 12 jurors and 15 alternates that Ito hopes to select.
By mid-afternoon, there were no longer enough prospective jurors to fill all 27 seats, ensuring that more jury prospects will be called up next week. Ito has warned that the next round of questioning could occupy much of November and has delayed a much-anticipated hearing on DNA evidence until Dec. 1.
That in turn has pushed back the likely date for opening statements to begin until early next year.
Seven prospective jurors from the panel Thursday who did not reach the final group of 12 were asked to return on Nov. 8, when questioning will begin for alternate jurors.
As jurors shuffled out of the courtroom Thursday, some appeared disappointed while others rejoiced. All 39 of the panelists on hand for Thursday's session have undergone weeks of questioning that began Sept. 26.
For much of that time, they have been ordered to avoid all media and even to stay out of bookstores. They say they have abided by that order, although many have complained about the hardships it has wrought in their lives.
Some of the rejected prospects clearly were delighted to be going home.
One woman, a Westchester resident challenged by the defense, grinned broadly Thursday as she strode from the courtroom, saying, "thank you" to no one in particular.
Another woman who had warned once that she would not show up if Ito sequestered the jury was among the final jury candidates dismissed Thursday. She beamed and thanked Shapiro for allowing her to go.
Beverly Clark, a 42-year-old black woman from Ladera Heights, gladly gave up her identity as Juror No. 209: "I was relieved. I was finally out of there. It was a horrible experience. I said from the beginning I did not want to be in this case. I think my privacy is more important than serving on the jury."
But others were less enthusiastic about giving up their moment in the limelight. One 60-year-old man, for instance, said he was sorry to leave the panel. But he took the news in stride.
"It was the trial of the century, and at least I was in there for a little while," said that man, who worked in the county probation office until he retired. "As far as not being chosen, hey, that's life. You win a few, you lose a few."
Times staff writer Ralph Frammolino contributed to this story.
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