Faced with a number of complaints from jurors in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, three sheriff’s deputies assigned to monitoring the panel were transferred Thursday, while in the courtroom a rookie police criminalist took the witness stand to describe and defend her work collecting evidence from the scene of the grisly double homicide.
Andrea Mazzola, a criminalist who went to work for the Los Angeles Police Department in early 1994, had spent several days waiting in the wings to testify, her appearance delayed by the prolonged questioning of her supervisor, Dennis Fung, and by a hiatus called to allow Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to interview each member of the jury panel.
All 18 jurors and alternates were questioned in the wake of allegations by excused juror Jeanette Harris, who described racial divisions among jurors and accused sheriff’s deputies of promoting those divisions. Following up on her comments, Ito individually questioned the panelists, and sources say that although the jurors reported no misconduct by their peers, several echoed Harris’ complaints about the sheriff’s deputies.
Ito initially had intended to question sheriff’s deputies today, but instead requested their reassignment after another juror complained to him Thursday, sources said. After hearing her complaint in his chambers during an afternoon break, Ito summoned the deputies to his chambers and informed them of his desire to have them taken off the case.
Although Ito did not accuse the deputies or jurors of misconduct, sources said he wanted the deputies--two men and a woman--removed to preserve harmony on the panel.
The move angered Sheriff Sherman Block, who called a news conference late in the day to denounce the judge’s decision.
“His action is premature in that he has not completed his inquiry. He has yet to interview the deputies, any of the deputies who are involved,” said Block, who added that he had told Ito he would address the issue publicly. “I am very confident in stating that this action on his part was unnecessary and inappropriate. . . . The judge is trying to retain the jury numbers that he now has, but again I am somewhat offended by the fact that effort is being made literally on the back of the deputies.”
Block disputed suggestions that his deputies should undergo sensitivity training to better equip them for handling delicate tasks such as caring for a sequestered jury. Block responded: “Some of the jurors need sensitivity training.”
Although lawyers and the judge declined to comment on the issues surrounding the jury in the case, a technological glitch Thursday allowed the leak of an abbreviated transcript of the latest complaint by a juror, made to the judge behind closed doors.
In the transcript, the juror, a 25-year-old flight attendant, asked to be dismissed from the panel.
“Why?” Ito asked.
“From this?” the juror said, according to the transcript. “Because I can’t take it anymore.”
The juror went on to say her desire was because of “a combination of things throughout the past three months that. . . .” With that, the transmission abruptly cut off.
According to sources, that juror’s complaints centered on the sheriff’s deputies. She was back in her seat when the trial resumed a few minutes later.
While the latest juror uproar highlighted the court day, Mazzola spent the session on the stand testifying about her role in collecting evidence in the case.
Her appearance had been eagerly anticipated, in part because defense attorneys had telegraphed their intention to subject her to a pointed cross-examination in their vigorous campaign to clear Simpson of the charges that he murdered Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson on June 12. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Mazzola initially seemed uncomfortable as she took the stand, but as she began to testify, she seemed to grow more at ease, fielding a carefully scripted set of questions from Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg. The prosecutor, who has handled much of the government’s physical evidence case so far, tried to head off the expected defense challenge to Mazzola’s work in two ways: by attempting to demonstrate that Mazzola is a competent, careful criminalist and by showing that some of the work she performed was so simple that almost anyone could do it.
In his initial round of cross-examination, defense attorney Peter Neufeld struck back. Neufeld, an experienced DNA lawyer whose work in that field has won him national renown, suggested that Mazzola altered her testimony about some events after meeting with colleagues and superiors in the months after the murders.
Mazzola spent only about an hour undergoing cross-examination Thursday, but during that time, she firmly and repeatedly denied shading any of her testimony.
In an effort to blunt the suggestion that Mazzola was a mere trainee, Goldberg had her list some of her professional credentials, including courses she took and work she did for other agencies. She told of a professor who docked his students points if they mishandled evidence--a penalty Mazzola said was never assessed against her--and she testified that she has received praise for her handling of evidence in other cases.
“Now, when you processed that first crime scene, did you get any feedback in terms of how you had done?” Goldberg asked.
“We, the people that were processing the scene, were given a commendation for the scene,” she responded.
“So this was your first crime scene and you received a commendation for it?” he asked.
“Right,” Mazzola responded with a touch of pride.
Neufeld seemed less impressed by her credentials, however. Near the end of the day, he launched his effort to discredit the handling of evidence partly by taking a shot at Mazzola’s background, belittling her police training and accreditation and trying to cast a shadow over her employment history.
Referring to Mazzola’s first job, with the Kern County district attorney’s office, Neufeld asked: “You were laid off from that position, correct?”
“Correct,” said Mazzola, her jaw set but otherwise undemonstrative.
Defense attorneys have accused the criminalists of sloppily handling a number of items of evidence, allegations that Fung fought off for the better part of nine days on the witness stand. Mazzola’s testimony was far less expansive, but she did firmly deny that she had handed Fung a bloody envelope while he was unprotected by gloves.
Citing a videotape that shows Fung receiving a white, rectangular object without gloves, the defense has alleged that he may have mishandled an envelope from the crime scene. Mazzola, however, insisted that she would never hand anyone a bloody object unless the person was wearing gloves.
Asked why not, she responded: “For personal protection. . . . We have various forms of hepatitis, HIV; we have AIDS.”
‘Nervous and Thoroughly Alone’
At one point, Goldberg asked Mazzola to open evidence packages containing a glove and cap found at the crime scene, a task she performed with the jury sitting just a few feet away. When it came time to put the glove back in its packaging, Goldberg asked her to demonstrate how such an item would be collected from a crime scene.
Wearing a pair of latex gloves, Mazzola gripped the evidence between two fingers and gingerly placed it in the brown paper bag, which she then closed, folded and put away.
“That’s all there is to it?” Goldberg asked, his voice raised for emphasis.
“That’s all there is to it,” she responded.
Anticipating another line of defense attack, Goldberg also elicited Mazzola’s explanation for why testimony she gave at an earlier hearing included mistakes.
Mazzola said she had only learned that she would be called to testify at that August session a few minutes before she headed to the courthouse, giving her no time to review her notes or to reflect on her actions during the investigation.
“How did you feel at that moment in time?” Goldberg asked. “Were you nervous?”
“Nervous and thoroughly alone,” she answered.
Mazzola’s testimony at the earlier hearing marked her first appearance in the Simpson case, and the transcripts from that August session offer defense lawyers a source of material with which to challenge the account she gives during this trial.
Bailey Gives His Views
The jury hearing the Simpson case is sequestered and cut off from news coverage about the proceedings, but that has not dissuaded some of the legal talent from appearing regularly in the media. In an interview scheduled to be broadcast tonight, F. Lee Bailey, the famed trial lawyer who has played a relatively small but important role in the Simpson defense, defended his cross-examination of Los Angeles police Detective Mark Fuhrman.
Although some commentators were unimpressed with Bailey’s performance, the veteran trial lawyer told interviewer David Frost that most of the legal analysts offer opinions “without knowing what they’re talking about.”
Bailey also used his latest media appearance to castigate much of the media coverage of the case. And at a time when defense lawyers are weighing the prospects of filing a motion accusing Ito of pro-prosecution bias, Bailey offered a ringing defense of the jurist, faulting him only for giving the lawyers too much leeway.
“I think he’s got a very tough case on his hands from a management point of view,” Bailey said. “I think that his rulings have pretty much been on the money. But I am impatient with his patience with the lawyers.”
Defense sources earlier this week had said they were considering a motion that would accuse Ito of favoring the prosecution, a position that the attorneys have raised on a number of issues during the trial. But sources now say that plan is on hold while the defense team evaluates what it could achieve with such a motion.
Staff writer Jim Newton contributed to this story.