When Judge Lance A. Ito turned off the cameras on one of the biggest days of the O.J. Simpson murder trial Tuesday, pandemonium struck the world press.
It came on a day when the press corps had swelled to its greatest size, no small feat considering that this has been the most heavily covered trial in American history.
They were drawn here, all 1,159 media representatives, by the final arguments of the lawyers, setting the stage for the jury to begin deliberating Simpson’s fate.
In the Camp O.J. parking lot, 14 satellite trucks were parked, sending signals to networks and to local stations from Seattle to New York. About 80 miles of cable had been laid to carry signals.
More than 250 phone lines connected reporters to their offices. Ten Porta Pottis and three dumpsters disposed of their waste.
Inside the courtroom were the usual complement of 24 reporters, all with assigned seats. Everyone else in the media had to rely on monitors in the two pressrooms to track the action and file their reports. They are pretty much like the viewers at home, here and abroad, from Australia to Luxembourg.
For the new arrivals, excited about their shot at the big story, none could have imagined that Ito would cut short their chance for glory. But for us regulars, it was an old story, Ito succumbing to the hate side of his love/hate relationship with the media.
Before the chaos began, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark was talking about cuts she said Simpson sustained on his hands during the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
The courtroom camera, which feeds images to reporters and television viewers, focused on Simpson’s hand, but it also caught a portion of a legal pad upon which Simpson was writing notes. Judge Ito spotted it on his own monitor and halted the proceedings.
With that, Ito, looking grim, excused the jurors. When they were safely gone, he said he feared that any viewer could read what Simpson was writing. “That’s not appropriate,” the judge said. “It’s a very flagrant violation” of attorney-client relationships.
At first, Ito seemed to waffle over whether he was going to pull the plug. But then he did it, so swiftly that it took everyone a moment to realize what he had done and its implications. How can we get the story out to a huge audience deprived of its Simpson fix on such a momentous day?
Rising to her feet, ABC commentator Cynthia McFadden, an attorney, said: “Your Honor, may we be heard?”
“Sit down,” snapped Ito.
The camera that had drifted over Simpson’s notebook now zoomed upward, focusing on the Great Seal of the State of California, above the bench. Ito then cut the sound.
Panic struck. It was as though a small bomb had exploded. People who make their living being on top of the news were running around asking one another what had happened and how they could cope with the aftermath.
TV field producers scrambled for information, sprinting down a hallway to an office where television coverage is coordinated. They demanded answers, and were furious when they could get none.
Some of the press headed downstairs to the courtroom on the ninth floor, but the doors were closed. They milled around, disoriented as war refugees.
Meanwhile the story went on, as the jury was recalled and Clark resumed her argument. The only communication from the courtroom was the transcript being typed by the court reporters, available to those subscribing to a computer service. A radio reporter read the transcript on the air.
Networks and stations reran the incident. Reporters and producers examined the tape to see if Simpson’s notes were visible. None of them could see writing
“We’ve looked at it, we’ve reviewed it,” said Rikki Kleiman, a Court TV anchor. “You can’t read it.” Moreover, Kleiman said, the picture of Simpson’s hands is a pool camera staple. “We’ve used that shot for nine months.”
Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, an ABC commentator, didn’t agree.
“Someone could read it with the right technology,” he said as he stood in the hall outside the courtroom. “I could see words,” he said, although he conceded that he couldn’t read them. But, he added, “they could be enhanced.”
But the media machine, with so much at stake, was not going simply take it.
Phones immediately began ringing in the Downtown office of attorney Kelli L. Sager, who specializes in media law and has successfully represented the press before Judge Ito in the past. Possessed of a strong, logical mind and a clear delivery, Sager also has a warm personality, permitting her to get through to a judge who doesn’t think much of her clients.
Sager knew there was trouble even before the calls arrived. Dressed in casual clothes, she’d been in her office working on another case when she flipped on the television set, just in time to see “Simpson Unplugged.”
She changed into a dark blue suit and drove the now-familiar path to the Criminal Courts Building 10 minutes away.
Walking quickly, without a smile, she headed to the television pool office, where a tape of the incident was waiting for her.
She then received word that Ito had recessed court and wanted to see her. In his chambers, Ito and Sager watched the tape. “You could see there was writing of some kind, but you couldn’t make it out,” she said later.
Sager made two points to Ito: The cameraman didn’t intend to show the note. And “it would be a real disservice to the public to turn the cameras off at this point.”
Ito agreed. The cameras in the courtroom, he said, performed a public service.
So, after fining the television pool $1,500, Ito relented but ordered that Simpson be taped only above the shoulders.
Once again, Ito has made it clear that he considers himself the producer and director of the greatest TV show on Earth. And he’s as mercurial and temperamental as anything Hollywood has to offer.
For all the personnel and technology, all the fiber-optics, cables, computers, phones, satellite dishes, portable studios and Porta Pottis, the world’s reporters and media moguls know that their link to the trial is a most uncertain connection.