O.J. Case Spurs Jury Reform Debate
FALLOUT from the dismissal of O.J. Simpson trial juror Jeanette Harris -- the sixth in 12 weeks -- continues to overshadow the courtroom proceedings, raising judicial issues that go far beyond the daily drama over Mr. Simpson's guilt or innocence.
Ms. Harris's allegations of jury conflict -- ranging from racial slurs to harangues over video choices -- shift the focus to the dynamics of jury paneling and sequestration.
Her descriptions of testy, cooped-up jurors has legal experts and the public wondering:
* Is the jury selection process in need of reform?
* Do high-profile cases require special procedures to mitigate the stress of confinement, isolation, and a prying media?
* Is this case headed for a mistrial or hung jury?
''There is no question in my mind that sequestration for this amount of time is a significant imposition on the lives of jurors,'' says Myrna Raeder, chair of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Committee on Federal Rules of Procedure and Evidence. ''When you throw in the intense scrutiny of these jurors themselves, it does press for rethinking of the entire process.''
Now, public and news media furor continue a full week after Harris was dropped from the Simpson jury panel for allegedly failing to disclose an incident of domestic abuse during pretrial questioning.
Hours after being dismissed by Judge Lance Ito, Harris contended that she and other jury panelists had been allowed unsupervised conversations with people not on the jury and that some jurors might be talking about the case among themselves. Both are expressly prohibited by Judge Ito.
Harris also said the jury, which, including alternates, has 12 blacks, four whites, and two Hispanics, was dividing along racial lines. And she accused Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies of promoting racial divisions among the jurors. She also characterized the prosecution's case so far as weak, and opined the trial would end in a hung jury.
''It was unfortunate that she went into detail about what was happening after Judge Ito had expressly told her not to,'' says Ms. Raeder. ''But it is something he needed to know to try and diffuse immediately.''
Because her departure leaves just six alternate jurors remaining -- which fuels growing concern of a mistrial -- Judge Ito has begun interviewing jurors one by one in his chambers to better gauge the extent of problems. Lawyers for Simpson have also filed a motion charging the prosecution with attempting to purge the jury of members it considers supportive of Simpson, thereby engineering a mistrial. Ito's juror interviews will help decide whether a formal hearing on that matter is warranted.
''Remembering this is a juror with credibility problems, we all should be very cautious about accepting her at face value until Judge Ito is through with his investigation,'' warns Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, more than any episode in the trial, the Harris incident has fueled speculation that judicial proceedings are out of control and that a mistrial or hung jury is inevitable.
But several experts say that interpretation is without legal foundation. ''Under California law, nothing has transpired to hint that this trial is headed [toward a mistrial or a hung jury],'' says Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Because of its visibility, however, the trial highlights inherent flaws in the judicial process.
''Jeanette Harris in a way personifies what is wrong with the jury system in that it rests on crucial, voluntary performance of citizens,'' notes Mr. Pugsley. ''If they cut corners and don't tell the truth, the system is undermined.''
Noting the publicity and that one juror was already excused for attempting to write a book about his experience, Pugsley says, ''There is a magnetic lure to serve for reasons other than, or in addition to, doing justice to an individual.''
To be sure, others caution, jury problems are exaggerated in high-profile trials where the public is paying the most attention. Nonetheless, renewed calls for process changes -- both minor and more drastic -- are circulating in the media and among judicial experts. Those include:
* Compelling a greater range of people to serve on juries. ''Often the white collar and business professional types always find a way to avoid jury duty,'' says Pugsley. ''One step in the right direction would be to enforce greater diversity.''
* To ensure diversity, build in better guarantees of job security to citizens serving on juries. Higher than token compensation -- $5 a day in Los Angeles -- might be warranted.
* Greater efforts to simplify jury instructions and legal jargon.
* Experimenting with less than 12-person juries and less than unanimous verdicts as allowed by the US Supreme Court and practiced in such states as Florida.
* Renewed discussion of professional juries, with full compensation, multiethnic diversity, and certified admittance based on full knowledge of court and evidenciary proceedings.
Many experts here say the questioning of jurors by Judge Ito will do much to defuse the Simpson jury conflict, real or alleged. But they say any tactics Ito may try will not be dramatic. ''He won't read them the riot act,'' says Stan Goldman, professor of law at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. ''They could revolt on him with such things as feigning illness. He can't risk running out of jurors ... as this trial goes, so goes his prestige and career.''