OJ takes a back seat as judge grabs limelight

Click to follow
SHORTLY before Judge Lance Ito put America out of its agony of anticipation and finally set the ball rolling in the OJ Simpson murder trial, he gave a solemn lecture to the lawyers in the case.

They should remember that their conduct would have an impact on their profession for many years to come, he said -adding that it was probably true to say that the American legal system itself was on trial.

Although the judge predicted a fierce battle, he cannot have expected the scenes which were to follow. Within less than a week, the trial has degenerated into a chaotic nationwide soap opera, in which the dignity of the law is the loser, day after day.

TUESDAY: Opening statements are not even complete before Judge Ito throws a rage of such proportions that it is impossible not to wonder if seeing his bespectacled and bearded features on national television every night is getting to him.

The courtroom camera, which is feeding the trial to the world, accidentally catches a fleeting glimpse of a female alternate juror while Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor, is explaining how she thought Simpson murdered his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman.

The shot lasts a mere eight-tenths of a second, and would have gone unnoticed by almost everyone, were it not for Ito. Furious, he calls an early halt to the day's proceedings, and announces he is contemplating pulling the plug on all TV coverage.

As America's TV executives reel in horror at such a ratings feast being snatched away from them (the proceedings are live on three cable channels, six Los Angeles local stations and three US networks), they console themselves with the thought that the 44-year-old judge has threatened to cut off the camera before, only to back down.

They also suspect that beneath Ito's usually calm, if slightly pompous, courtroom manner lurks a quiet fondness for the limelight, which became evident when he recently agreed to be interviewed by one LA TV station. Little wonder some lawyers privately call him "Judge Ego".

His mini-tantrum is not his first erratic moment. During jury selection, he booted a candidate out of the jury pool for watching a Barbara Stanwyck movie, and another for seeing a Spanish language soap.

WEDNESDAY: After a night's sleep, Ito has calmed down. He rules that the camera can stay, although with restrictions on its mobility. So worried is he about protecting the anonymity of his jurors that he orders a glass panel to be sprayed - just in case their reflections are visible to the watching outside world.

Johnnie Cochran, supremo of Simpson's "dream team" of lawyers, begins his opening statement with a sweeping attack on the prosecution's version of events, unveiling a clutch of new witnesses whose statements could help exonerate his millionaire client.

This time it's the prosecution's turn to go ballistic. They accuse Cochran of committing at least 27 violations of California's evidence discovery law. One of their team, William Hodgman is so upset that Ito comments on his odd facial expressions. Less than two hours later, he is rushed to hospital with chest pains.

THURSDAY: Both sides are now at each other's throats. Apparently struggling to keep control, Judge Ito puts proceedings on hold to allow prosecutors time to decide what sanctions to ask him to impose on their opponents - but not before prosecution attorney Christopher Darden declares that the dream team's new witnesses include "heroin addicts, thieves, felons and a court-certified liar".

As the jury cools its heels in isolation, the court wrangles over the illegally introduced new witnesses. Name-calling reaches a crescendo. Marcia Clark accuses the defence of "outrageous... disgusting... appalling" misconduct.

But the most vicious swipe comes from Darden. He tells the court (and the nationwide audience) that one of the disputed witnesses is a fraudster with a string of debts and lawsuits. Ito postpones the trial until Monday while he ponders a prosecution request for a 30-day delay.

Meanwhile, Hodgman's illness has become a health crisis of presidential proportions. CNN even interrupts programming with a news flash about his condition. It later turns out he is suffering from stress (prompting an LA station to run a lengthy story on OJ-related stress).

FRIDAY: No proceedings. But the battle for popular opinion continues apace, even though the jury is sequestered. Simpson's book I Want to Tell You hits the shelves, along with an audio cassette, recorded by him in his jail cell. Predictably, it is a monologue on his innocence in which he tries to reinforce the theory that the murders were drug-related.

Few doubt that the book will generate enough dollars for the former American footballer's defence fund to ensure that this legal bickering, grandstanding and posturing can go on well into the summer. This is, of course, good news for the army of TV executives, tabloid editors, and legal commentators who are making a fortune out the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman -but rather less so for those with any concern for the integrity and dignity of America's judicial system.

Opinions, page 25