At the start of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, he was America's Judge, a fixture on the evening news, a patient and fair arbitrator of courtroom plays, a solicitous father figure for an imprisoned jury.

Now that the trial is over, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito finds his judicial legacy questioned, his style blamed for some flaws in the trial and his legal career as likely to be hurt as helped by the case that catapulted him to fame.

Although some scholars and judges rate his performance highly, as do most members of the public interviewed by pollsters, Ito nevertheless is frequently excoriated for the nine-month duration of the trial.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel, trying to quell a commotion in her San Francisco courtroom in March, warned: "I do not run a Lance Ito court. I run a tight ship." An out-of-state judge told USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky that he hoped to preside over a celebrated case because he wanted to show the world how a trial should be run--"not like Ito."

Ito's defenders stress that any judge who presided over the famous trial would have been second-guessed and suggest that judicial critics have allowed their egos to persuade them that they would have done a better job. Some probably are just envious, these supporters say.

"I think he has done as well as anybody could have," said retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow. "I think we have all learned . . . that the one person who is blamed when everything happens is the trial judge."

Ito's friends describe the trial as a strain that caused him considerable anguish and pain at times. He could not go anywhere in public without being recognized and often pestered. He was the first to enter the Criminal Courts Building in the morning and the last to leave, and the strain was visible on his face, colleagues said. One said he tried to "cheer him up" by showing Ito articles in which he was praised.

By the end, Ito, 45, had expressed "concerns" to Superior Court Judge John Reid about the trial's effect on his legal career and felt "aghast" and "shocked" by suggestions of a few fellow judges that he should quit and take $5 million to write a book about the case. Reid compared Ito to a "trauma victim."

"This was the ordeal of his life," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James A. Bascue, supervising judge for the Criminal Court. "This was not a pleasant experience for him."

Scholars and jurists generally praise Ito for legally sound rulings and an exceptional grasp of the record in the case. "Overall, Ito did a good job in an impossible set of circumstances," Chemerinsky said.

But even some who rate his performance highly fault him for failing to cut off protracted arguments over motions, unequal personal treatment of lawyers and occasional peevishness.

"I thought his handling of the trial was fair and evenhanded, and on the whole, legally correct," said UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett. "He was witty and entertaining--but basically a disaster. He's made our criminal justice system the laughingstock of the world."

The exasperation of critics soared when Ito failed to cut off Simpson's declaration of innocence--out of the presence of the jury--after the defendant was asked to waive his right to testify.

Most legal analysts said Ito's courtroom rulings favored the prosecution, although the law in those situations also tended to be on the district attorney's side. Some criticized Ito for allowing testimony that Simpson had said he dreamed of killing his former wife and for failing to allow the jury to hear more of the taped statements that former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman made to an aspiring screenwriter.

"There were very, very important issues in this case decided wrongly by Judge Ito that could have tremendous consequences for future cases," said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who had prepared an appeal in case Simpson was convicted. "This case was a textbook for judicial error."

Dershowitz said he was prepared to challenge Ito's rulings on several grounds, including the admission of some of the domestic violence evidence, the failure to allow in Fuhrman's taped statements about planting evidence, and the Police Department's search for evidence at Simpson's home without a warrant after the murders.

But after offering a scorching analysis of Ito's rulings, even Dershowitz conceded that Ito "was much better than most judges," probably because he knew the world was watching him.

University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald F. Uelmen, who also was to prepare a possible appeal for Simpson, said Ito committed a handful of errors that could have reversed a conviction. "On the law," Uelmen said, "he tended to lean toward the prosecution, and on some rulings he leaned too far."

Others complained that Ito failed to mask his personal views of the lawyers in the courtroom. At the trial's start, Ito sustained an objection by Simpson lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. when he complained that prosecutor Marcia Clark had crossed the line from opening statement to argument, Chemerinsky said. But after Clark objected "when Cochran did the same thing, Ito said, 'Oh, let him finish,' " the law professor recalled.

Ito seemed particularly irritated by defense attorney Peter Neufeld, had "less patience" with Clark and gave Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Kelberg "more latitude and deference," Chemerinsky said.

"The sense that it was as visible to me as it was at times was troubling," said Chemerinsky, attributing it in part to Ito being "human."

But former Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, a friend of Ito's, said the jurist appeared harsher on Clark and Neufeld at times because they "had difficulty in stopping when the judge wanted them to stop."

If Ito did not seem particularly fond of Neufeld, Neufeld was no fan of Ito. "Judge Ito was a disappointment," the New York defense lawyer said after the verdicts. "There were a number of times, particularly when the jury wasn't present, when his conduct was inconsistent with what one expects from someone presiding over a murder trial. He was obviously enamored with the press and celebrity."

Many fault Ito for having allowed lawyers to argue at length on written motions, for holding protracted sidebar conferences and for failing to have extended trial hours early on to ease the strain on the sequestered jury.

"I happened to be at my place in the country on a Friday and had the radio on," said a retired Los Angeles judge who vows to write a letter critical of Ito if he is ever considered for legal promotion. "I will never forget it. I was going nuts. Here they had this mountain of papers [on a motion], he had obviously read the papers, and the attorney would go over and over and over them again, citing the same cases.

"That man lost control of the courtroom early on, and when he tried to get it back, he did it in petty, silly ways, like throwing out the reporter for chewing gum."

A current Los Angeles Superior Court judge shared this frustration. "I think he has been a disaster," said the judge, who before the Simpson trial had only a positive image of Ito. "I think he made what should have been a six-week case into a yearlong nightmare. He gives patience a whole new meaning."

But a conviction might have sparked unrest in the streets, and this may have accounted for Ito's willingness to allow lawyers to make their case fully, said Judge Chernow. "He had to be conscious of the fact that we had riots after the Rodney King verdict," Chernow said, "and that would weigh heavily in making sure everybody is heard fully."

Even before the Simpson trial, Ito's judicial style was "to let people be heard," said his friend and supervisor, Judge Bascue. "At some point you've got to stop it, and at the point he stopped it, people criticized him for being petulant," Bascue said. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't."

The patience so derided by Ito's critics was praised by Simpson lawyer Uelmen, who declared that he had never before felt so comfortable in a courtroom. Ito, he said, managed the court well.

"Usually with a trial of this nature," the defense lawyer said, "you end up with a couple of lawyers in jail. Ito just never let it get that far."

He did, however, frequently impose fines on lawyers who transgressed in his court.

Supporters also credit Ito for enduring the pressure of constant commentary by legal pundits. "I don't believe there are many judges who could have withstood the stress of that case and the constant daily evaluation of his own performance," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders, who presided over the first McMartin Pre-School trial.

Ito's occasional prickliness and short temper were regrettable but probably understandable given the stress he was under, his defenders maintain. That Ito tended to make decisions or appear to decide one way only to retract later was praised by some as willingness to admit mistakes or reconsider issues and condemned by others as dangerous fickleness.

"It is like raising children," said the retired Los Angeles judge critical of Ito. "If you change your mind too often, particularly on minor points, you are sending a message that the last one that yammers at you gets their way."

To this judge, Ito appeared to have "a great need to be liked." Being on the bench is "sort of a lonely place," the judge said. "You don't make any friends, and if that bothers you, you get out."

Some of the irritation with Ito was over relatively trivial issues, such as his willingness to invite celebrities such as Richard Dreyfuss and Diane Sawyer into his private chambers.

"He is not star-struck," Bascue said. "He is a people person. . . . [Critics] don't talk about the hundreds of other people, the little people, who went into his chambers."

Despite his fatigue, Ito appeared "relaxed and refreshed and seemed to bask in the support of his colleagues" at a California Judges Assn. meeting on the weekend after the case went to the jury, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul Boland, president of the association.

Ito, Boland said, was the main attraction. He wrote "N. Cognito" on his name tag and turned down a request to accept a tribute from the judges' gathering.

"He asked that the judges association not acknowledge his presence and not pay him any tribute whatsoever," Boland said. "He went on to say he was overwhelmed by all the affection and the support he had received all weekend from his colleagues."

Ito has long expressed interest in presiding in Juvenile Court, where he believes he could make a difference in the lives of some young offenders, and also has hoped for a position on the state Court of Appeal.

Although many lawyers believe Ito would make an excellent appellate judge, they suspect that his association with the Simpson trial will hurt his chances for promotion, at least for the short term, and some fear that he will be unfairly tarnished with Simpson's acquittal by those unhappy with it.

Vigo (Chip) Nielsen, a San Francisco attorney who represents Gov. Pete Wilson on political matters, said a judge's chances for elevation "may be more problematic" if that judge has just presided over a celebrated trial with a controversial conclusion.

"Unless he was canonized at the trial," Nielsen said, "people are probably going to give him a little more breathing room."

The closer a politician is to an election, the less likely he or she will promote a judge whose public persona may be clouded, Nielsen said. But a governor or U.S. senator also "might say, 'It is unfair. This guy is on the top of our list. This is bad timing, but let's see if there is better timing in the next three years,' " Nielsen said.

Ito, meanwhile, has been advised by friends to take a long-overdue vacation before deciding what he will do next.

"It was a painful experience for him, very painful," Bascue said. "Anyone could have seen the pain and sadness. The most tragic and painful thing about this entire trial was the invasion of privacy and the impact on his wife," a Los Angeles police captain.

Ito, who is Japanese American, found himself during the trial publicly ridiculed by a U.S. senator who mimicked him in a fake Japanese accent. Months later, Ito fought back tears in the courtroom when discussing the fact that his wife, Margaret York, had been disparaged by Fuhrman in the interviews with the aspiring screenwriter.

Judge Reid, who reviewed the writer's taped interviews with Fuhrman for the court, described them as "a classic example of a disgruntled employee making a comment about a supervisor."

After the verdicts were reached, Ito expressed no concerns about it because he had ensured a fair trial, Bascue said. Reid noted that Ito may still want to go to Juvenile Court.

"I think he is looking at all options," Bascue said.

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