Despite Perks, Sequestration Is a Gilded Cage, Jurors Say : Courts: Former panelists describe isolation and censorship facing those who will hear the Simpson case.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To anybody else, it would have been a dream vacation: An all-expense-paid, two-week stay at the Los Angeles Hilton. Maids to do the laundry, chefs to cook the food. Bellhops to tote the bags and a chauffeur to drive the van.

But to Carolyn Walters--a juror sequestered to deliberate in the Reginald O. Denny beating trial--the free getaway became a gilded hell. Every luxury merely intensified the suffocating sense that she was trapped.

"If you're limited to the same four walls day after day, even a nice room becomes just a glorified prison," said Walters, the jury forewoman. "I'll tell you: It gets old pretty fast."

As jurors in the O.J. Simpson case settled into their hotel rooms last week, men and women who have served on other sequestered panels agreed with Walters that a depressing and at times infuriating feeling of isolation sets in very quickly. From telephone conversations to family visits, every contact with the outside world is censored, every activity is controlled. Jurors in the federal Rodney G. King beating trial could not even watch "Beverly Hills Cop," lest the movie taint jurors' views of police officers.

Because sequestration creates so much hardship for jurors--and runs up such a hefty tab for taxpayers--it has been used in only a few extraordinary cases in Los Angeles County over the last two decades. Judges generally order sequestration only when jurors' safety is threatened, or when inflammatory, prejudicial information surfaces outside the courtroom, said Judge Cecil J. Mills, formerly a supervising judge for Los Angeles County Superior Court.

"Sequestering is not something judges would generally do without a great deal of soul-searching," Mills said. "Boy, is it an inconvenience."

Southern California courts have hosted numerous sensational trials, from the Menendez brothers to the Hillside Strangler case. But veteran court watchers could recall only four local trials in the last 25 years in which jurors were sequestered.

* In the Charles Manson murder case of 1970-71, jurors were closeted in the Ambassador Hotel for 8 1/2 months--nearly the entire trial. "If you're serious about insulating and shielding the jury from media coverage of the case, there's only one way to do that, and that's sequestration," said Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who won Manson's conviction.

* In the 1993 federal King beating case, jurors were sequestered for the entire 57-day trial. But this time, the judge's concern was security, not publicity. Tensions were still high after the riots that erupted in 1992 after a Superior Court jury acquitted the police officers of beating King, so U.S. District Judge John G. Davies wanted federal jurors protected by marshals.

* In the 1993 Denny case, which involved two men accused of seriously beating a truck driver during the early hours of the riots, jurors were sequestered during deliberations to protect them from the heckling and harassment they had encountered at the courthouse.

* In Orange County's 1989 trial of serial killer Randy Steven Kraft, jurors also deliberated in secret, cut off from all news accounts of the gory case. Their sequestration lasted two weeks.

In the Simpson case, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito ordered sequestration out of concern that the intense media coverage of the double murder case would improperly influence jurors. Many of the most tantalizing details of the case, and Simpson's stormy relationship with his ex-wife, were widely reported but may never be admitted as evidence.

Ito has not detailed the terms of the jurors' sequestration, and court officials are still discussing how to arrange family and conjugal visits.

But one ground rule is already clear: "Everything they read, and everything they hear and see will be monitored," Sheriff's Deputy Fidel Gonzales said.

A dozen Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies will guard the 12 Simpson jurors and 12 alternates around the clock. They may decide to open mail and listen to phone conversations. Although the deputies will not trail every juror at every minute, Gonzales said that "just about all activities will be monitored." Any excursions outside the hotel or courtroom will be organized and supervised by the deputies.

Gonzales said taxpayers will cover the jurors' $85-a-night hotel rooms, $35-a-day meal allowances, and extras such as laundry, transportation and occasional field trips to tourist attractions such as Universal Studios or Griffith Park. For a six-month trial, that adds up to at least $518,000.

The tab for the King jury sequestration, which lasted less than two months, reached $204,055.

"You paid for it," King juror Erik Rasmussen said.

Upbeat about the experience, Rasmussen said sequestration taught him to work through tough issues and communicate with strangers. But the 56-year-old Fullerton resident admitted that at times he resented the restrictive regimen.

When his wife came to visit--for an hour each Sunday--federal marshals would shuttle her into a hotel conference room and then escort Rasmussen to meet her. "Just like in a jail," he said.

As for any measure of intimacy, well, the marshal laid down the law early on. "We could do anything we wanted," Rasmussen said, "but he had to watch."

In phone conversations, too, the marshals enforced strict rules: no talking about the case, and no talking about the sequestration. They listened on a separate line, and broke in when necessary.

Cooing to a lover, hashing out family issues with a mother--any private conversation grew unbearably awkward pretty quickly. In the Denny case, Walters said, one juror ran down the hotel hallway screaming in frustration because she could not talk privately with her boyfriend.

With such complete isolation, Walters' only inkling of the intense scrutiny surrounding the Denny case came from the court censors. Her newspapers would arrive each morning slashed to pieces--with every article relating to the case snipped out. She could judge the trial's import by measuring how much text was left for her to read.

"Every day, the holes got larger and larger," Walters said. "It was a running joke--is there any other news out there?"

The enforced aloofness was tough. Even worse, however, was the tension that developed from spending all day, every day, with the same small group of lonely, exhausted, stressed-out strangers.

"During the trial, you can't talk about the case, so everybody loves everybody," Walters said. "Then you go into that (jury) room and start deliberating, and . . . you really begin to see who you are locked up with. People you thought you wanted to be friends with-- well, you want to kill them."

As one King juror said: "It was a horrendous experience."

Jurors from the several sequestered panels recount screaming matches during deliberations--and sometimes afterward, as well. In the stuffy, cloistered world of sequestration, every petty grudge took on tremendous weight.

Sequestered jurors "have lots of time to think about things of little importance, things which ordinarily wouldn't occupy (our minds) a 10th of a second," Manson juror William M. Zamora told the judge hearing his case, in a letter written from sequestration in the Ambassador Hotel.

Zamora complained about both bailiffs who guarded him and the jurors he was supposed to be working with. In such close quarters, it seemed, everyone got on everyone's nerves.

"If you live with someone for a certain amount of time . . . you start noticing their every little idiosyncrasy," Zamora said in an interview.

He could not help but notice, for example, that two Manson jurors started an affair during the trial. The lovers openly held hands and danced together at the hotel, Zamora said. Their behavior grew circumspect only on the weekends--when they entertained conjugal visits from unsuspecting spouses.

That aside, most sequestered jurors said they were far more apt to engage in spiteful spats than in amorous affairs.

Recognizing that intense hatred can develop quickly when strangers are cooped up together, some attorneys object to sequestering juries.

Prosecutors worry that an unhappy juror could buck the general consensus as a form of revenge against despised colleagues. If personal animosity spills over into the deliberations, they warn, the jurors could deadlock out of sheer stubbornness. Defense attorneys, too, worry about sequestration, fearing that jurors could rush to an imperfect verdict simply to free themselves from confinement.

In the Simpson case, defense attorneys at first objected to sequestration on that ground.

They also argued that whole groups of potential jurors--young parents, for example--might find sequestration a tremendous hardship and beg off service. And finally, they suggested that sequestration might produce a subtle pro-prosecution bias if jurors felt pampered by government officials during free hotel stays.

As the pretrial hearing on Simpson's allegedly violent behavior approached, however, defense lawyers changed their strategy. Eventually, they joined the prosecution in asking Ito to sequester the jury.

Ito, who could have ordered sequestration even without the lawyers' consent, agreed.

The question now, of course, is whether the elaborate, expensive precautions make any difference in the verdict.

"It seems to me that juries do their job whether or not they're sequestered," Mills said. "I cannot believe that any person who would be selected to serve on a jury like the Simpson (panel) would say, 'I'm going to vote against the way I really feel because I'm locked up.' I think they will do the job society asked them to do."

King juror Rasmussen said sequestration aided his deliberations even though it disrupted his life. To jurors hearing the trial of Kraft, who was accused of torturing and killing 16 young men, the sequestration proved vital.

"It was hard to come home and try to carry on your life," said one juror, who asked not to be identified. "You had to be a normal person, when it wasn't a normal situation."

So when they finally reached the deliberation phase, Kraft jurors were glad to duck into the privacy of the Santa Ana Quality Inn.

"It was a lot easier on people" to be sequestered, said jury foreman Jim E. Lytle, a Fullerton electrician. "We had pretty good treatment."

In fact, compared to other recent sequestrations, the Kraft panel did have it easy.

Jurors could hold private telephone conversations. They could shut their hotel room doors when guests visited. And they could even watch television without a federal marshal commandeering the remote control.

Not trusting honor to triumph over temptation, deputies in the Simpson case have stripped televisions, radios and telephones from jurors' hotel rooms. Under similar conditions in the Denny case, Walters felt terribly trapped.

"I remember one day when I just looked out the window and saw how close freedom was, and knew I couldn't get there," she said. Trembling, she stared at the sunshine and thought, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?"

Walters expects most Simpson jurors to be suffering similar doubts about now, when the novelty of hotel life is starting to wear off. Fed up after just two weeks in sequestration, she can scarcely imagine hanging on for months and months.

"I have sympathy for them," she said. "They have no idea what they're in for."

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