Book on O J drives trial judge to distraction

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The Independent Online
When Judge Lance Ito took charge of the O J Simpson murder case, instantly becoming America's most famous trial judge, the verdict seemed unanimous. He was, commentators agreed, the right man for a near impossible job, an island of calm amid a cacophony of competing interests.

Now, they are not so sure. As efforts to select jurors grind on, a new side to the judge has emerged, which differs from the portraits of a staid and steady-handed individual that filled the pages of America's newspapers when he was first appointed to the case. Some court watchers are beginning to wonder if he is not, well . . . a trifle erratic.

This week, for example, Judge Ito, 44, has thrown out one person after another from the pool of prospective jurors he is questioning in an effort to find 12 unbiased people to sit in judgment of the former Buffalo Bill football player. He dismissed one woman after she admitted watching an old Barbara Stanwyck film, and another who said she watched a Spanish language television soap. A third, a retired man, was shown the door because he watched cartoons with his grandson.

Their mistake was to have disobeyed the judge's instruction to stay away from all forms of media (no easy feat in this television-saturated society), even though they have been bombarded with O J stories for weeks beforehand.

The order came after the publication of yet another O J-related book, the arrival of which infuriated the judge, and prompted some of his most curious decisions.

It is a tawdry little tome, co-written by Faye Resnick, a self-confessed cocaine addict and Los Angeles socialite who claims to have been a close friend of Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole, one of the two murder victims. Among its allegations are claims that Simpson repeatedly beat Nicole and threatened to kill her if he found out she was sleeping with another man.

Although such material undoubtedly threatens to prejudice potential jurors, it was scarcely unique. Many of the endless O J stories on America's tabloid television shows and magazines fall into the same category, and a number have turned out to be wrong.

Most of these have been ignored by Judge Ito (although one prompted him to threaten to shut down the courtroom television camera), but this time he acted differently: he suspended jury selection and fired off faxes to three television companies, begging them to cancel interviews with Ms Resnick, who co-authored the book with a journalist from the US tabloid, the National Enquirer. Her appearance would 'further jeopardise the party's right to a fair trail', he warned. Only one television company - CNN - complied.

His actions were a book seller's dream. Had he ignored the book, it would probably have been forgotten, consigned to the growing heap of, mostly tacky, O J literature. Instead, it is a bestseller, causing its gloating publisher to joke about the judge being on his payroll. Moreover, his words may have provided Simpson's attorneys with valuable ammunition for an appeal, should he be convicted: if Judge Ito worried that a fair trial would be 'further jeopardised' by the book, then he must believe that it has already been threatened.

When jury selection resumed, the judge delivered another surprise: he decided to ban the press from the courtroom, apparently hoping this would cool the cauldron of publicity. But the next day - after protests from media lawyers - he changed his mind, and allowed journalists back.

Such contradictory conduct suggests he is struggling to retain control of a trial that has been hijacked by a multi-million dollar O J-related industry -an army of journalists, publishers, lawyers, private investigators, jury consultants and television legal experts. Matters are made worse by the strong suspicion that people may be lying during voir dire, the process of questioning potential panelists. 'We have 300 people begging to be on the case of the century,' complained Robert Shapiro, Simpson's lawyer. 'They'll give you any answer they want.'

Scrutiny of the judge's past suggests he has long had a taste for the melodramatic. Judge Ito, a former prosecutor, is the son of Japanese-American teachers who met in an internment camp in California during the Second World War. When he was a student, according to some reports, he would mark the anniversary of Pearl Harbor by pulling on an aviator's leather helmet and - at the exact time of the attack - tearing through the halls hurling fire crackers and shouting incoherently about 'round eyes'.

The judge's recent behaviour suggests he not lost this theatrical streak, a trait that makes an extraordinary trial even more compelling. Whether it makes much sense is a different matter.