Wanted: Angelenos with open minds: Unbiased jurors hard to find for O J Simpson trial

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The Independent Online
A COURT will embark on a task tomorrow that seems well-nigh impossible: finding 12 Americans who have not already made up their minds about the O J Simpson case.

But the jury, which will decide whether the former Buffalo Bill football player is guilty of murdering his ex-wife and a 25-year-old waiter, is to be chosen not from the whole of America but only from an initial pool of 1,000 Los Angeles County residents.

For weeks the entire nation has been immersed in accounts of how Nicole Simpson, 35, and Ronald Goldman, her friend, had their throats slashed outside her home in Brentwood, an up-market area on Los Angeles's West Side, on 12 June.

Five days later, 95 million Americans watched the slow-motion freeway chase that ensued when Simpson took off in a Ford Bronco, clutching a .357 Magnum to his head and pursued by a fleet of police cars and helicopters. There have been almost nightly reminders on television ever since.

But details of the case are even more familiar to the 9 million residents of LA County. Television coverage of pre-trial hearings has ensured that the metropolis teems with bar-room experts on every aspect of the case - from the bloody gloves (one at the scene, one at Simpson's estate) to the mystery envelope (which almost certainly contains a stiletto knife).

A huge media encampment has grown outside the Criminal Courts in downtown LA, with 40ft scaffolding towers, scores of satellite dishes and dozens of portaloos. Yet jury selection is expected to take weeks.

Despite popular belief, this selection (or, more accurately, rejection, as the court has no power actually to pick people) is not about finding people who know little about the case. In theory it seeks 12 people who can suspend whatever prejudices they may have.

Erwin Chemerinsky, Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, said: 'More people have more knowledge about this case than any other in US history. It is a question of finding people who can clear their minds.'

In fact, both sides in the case would clearly prefer partial jurors, and have taken steps to secure them. The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office and Simpson's lawyers have hired professional trial consultants, who charge up to dollars 250 ( pounds 160) an hour. Using the latest mass-marketing techniques - demographic studies, polls, background searches - they build profiles of favourable and undesirable jurors, and develop trial strategies.

The racial make-up of the jury will be important. Simpson's lawyers will want a panel containing as many blacks as possible: polls show they are far more likely to believe the 47-year-old sportsman-actor is innocent. The prosecution will prefer whites, especially wealthy, pro-establishment conservatives. Each side is allowed 20 'peremptory challenges' (removing jurors without reasons). But it is illegal to remove someone purely on grounds of race.

The system allows many in the jury pool to be exempt for work-related reasons - a factor that tends to increase the number of government officials (who are paid jury duty), the unemployed and retirees. Those not released will be asked to fill out a 50-page questionnaire exploring their attitudes to issues such as inter-racial marriage, sports heroes and wife-battering. Simpson pleaded no contest to a charge of 'spousal battery' in 1989.

Despite a USA Today/CNN poll showing 57 per cent of people do not want to serve as jurors, court administrators in Los Angeles have received hundreds of telephone calls from people volunteering for the panel - some no doubt mindful of the windfall that could ensue. There is no law to prevent a panellist selling his story to the tabloid press after the case is over.

Both sides have used the televised pre-trial hearings to push their case with potential jurors. This has produced some gripping evidence. We now know police believe that Simpson received special knife training from the Navy during rehearsals for Frogmen, a television pilot show, in which he is shown threatening to slash a woman's throat.

Superior Court Judge Lance Ito angrily threatened on Friday to bar cameras from the trial altogether after a television report claimed that spots of Nicole Simpson's blood had been found on socks in O J's mansion; he said the story could prejudice a fair trial. After being warned by the judge that the story was false, the original perpetrators - KNBC-TV in Los Angeles - had repeated it.

Judge Ito is not the only person glad to see a brief respite from courtroom television. Californians have a fondness for self-analysis. So it is unsurprising to learn that a Los Angeles 'media psychologist' Robert Butterworth says there is now a condition called 'O J Simpson Media Fatigue'. Sufferers include a sub-group called 'O J Burnouts' - people who 'get angry, nauseated or just want to run away when they encounter a TV or radio tuned to the proceedings'.