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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : Valuable Lessons of TV in Courtroom

There’s always room on a bandwagon for a politician seeking resuscitation.

With calls for judicial reform bellowing across the state in the wake of O.J. Simpson’s controversial acquittal, Gov. Pete Wilson now wants to change California law and crack down on cameras in courtrooms. After the embarrassment of being forced to drop out of the GOP presidential race, Wilson has now parachuted into an arena that he can more easily command, one that Wednesday encompassed even a daytime series as pedestrian as NBC’s “Leeza.”

“We all agree that overhauling the legal system is something that we all want,” proclaimed self-appointed national spokeswoman Leeza Gibbons, the show’s host.

Behind this sentiment and the governor’s professed concern about courtroom conduct--this week he called cameras “an external intrusion into the judicial process"--is the Simpson trial, of course. The circus of the Simpson trial. The circus that Wilson and others blame mostly on the Court TV lens that made the trial and its corps of hammy thespians accessible to everyone with a television set.

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What would these reformers do with the cameras now allowed inside state courtrooms? Ban em’! Yes, that’ll fix things.

Oh, please. As someone said recently, there’s something terribly wrong here. Better to ban cameras at political speeches.

Listen up. We in the media have met the circus, and we are it. Many TV newscasters in particular are the ones who were born in this trunk. They are the fright wigs, bulb noses and kazoos who pile out of their mini-cars and increasingly tramp sawdust all over the stories they cover. They, not the technology inside the courtroom, are the jokers, along with tabloids. They are the ones who defecated slapstick on the Simpson trial.

Not that Simpson’s trial didn’t progress more outrageously because of TV than it would have without it. Not that lawyers on both sides didn’t vamp for TV viewers even more than they customarily do for juries. Guilty as charged, the intent of these performances apparently being to slip lawyer spin through a transom of juror sequestration and to influence prospective jurors in the event of a retrial. If jurors did hear pillow talk about the trial during conjugal visits, however, such talk just as easily could have been generated by newspaper stories or newscast chitchat.

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Of course, Judge Lance A. Ito himself appeared to showboat from the bench, when he wasn’t publicly ripping the media or threatening to evict the camera, carrying through on that threat briefly during lead prosecutor Marcia Clark’s closing argument.

Yet what if the Simpson trial had not been televised? After all, you can learn much about trials from good newspaper reporting, and courtroom drawings can convey a moment.

Thus, what would have been lost had the trial not been televised? Well, in addition to tedious stretches of testimony, we would have missed some good theater, a long-running show that a large segment of the public found seductive. However, the entertainment factor is hardly justification for imposing on courtrooms cameras that may influence the course of criminal trials, however minimally. Nor is serving the public’s curiosity an excuse. That tabloid sheet The Globe, for example, has used that to justify its publication this week of horrific crime-scene photos of the butchered bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.

Yet given the swirling of wild rhetoric in the trial’s aftermath--including allegations by some that the mostly African American jury voted for race over evidence--having a video record of what went on inside the courtroom becomes all the more valuable when it comes to understanding motivation.

Much of the complicated blood evidence for and against Simpson was more understandable in print than on the screen. Yet many of the trial’s elements were fully experienced only through television. And to the extent that some of these may have been key to the jury’s thinking, their TV exposure made us smarter about this trial and its possible social underpinnings. For example:

* The bloody leather gloves debacle. The prosecution produced a pair of leather gloves that it claimed were worn by Simpson during the crime, and in an epic gamble that backfired, had him put them on in front of the jury. His struggle with them, making it appear they didn’t fit, was surely a seminal moment in the trial, one that stunned the prosecution and gave birth to the slogan Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. repeatedly deployed in his closing argument: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Only TV, in effect, seated you with the jury, so that you understood what juror Brenda Moran meant Wednesday when she said the botched demonstration was critical for her. “In plain English,” she added, “the gloves didn’t fit.”

* Criminalist Dennis Fung’s cross-examination by Simpson attorney Barry Scheck. Seeing for yourself the demolition of Fung on the stand is the only way you comprehended the extent to which the Simpson defense had shattered his credibility and persuasively advanced its theory about Los Angeles Police Department bungling.

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* Now-retired Detective Mark Fuhrman’s testimony. Only TV coverage gave you the opportunity to contrast his cool denial of using the “N word” on African Americans in the last 10 years with later evidence to the contrary. That included the many taped racist comments that he made in the presence of screenwriter Laura Hart McKinney. These were played in open court, all but two without the jury’s presence.

* Cochran’s closing argument in which he preached eloquently, urging jurors to send a message to police that racism no longer will be tolerated. His pulpit talk was the trial’s emotional haymaker, something that surely deeply affected at least some jurors. Only TV delivered the full impact, letting you make a more informed decision about whether evidence or ethnic bonding prevailed.

If anything, it’s courtroom cameras that deserve to prevail.


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