On June 21, 2016, the San Diego County Bar Association hosted its annual Bench Bar Media Program. The program provides a forum where judges, attorneys, and journalists can come together to have an open dialogue on a topic that incorporates all three professions. This year’s topic caught a second wind in recent months – the OJ Simpson trial. The guest speakers this year were AP Specialist Correspondent Linda Deutsch and Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, both of whom were present for and reported on the OJ Simpson trial.
In 1994, OJ Simpson was charged for the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. A few things made this trial stand out in comparison to all others. This case was the first major case in American history where DNA evidence was introduced as key/substantial evidence. In fact, the prosecution’s case relied solely on circumstantial evidence and therefore heavily on the DNA evidence, the veracity of which had never been tested before in a court of law. Further, the trial was the first, and only, American trial televised from gavel to gavel. The televised nature gave Americans and the world full access to the whole affair, and along with it, a sense that we were entitled to have an opinion and weigh in on whether OJ Simpson was guilty or innocent. Because of this, more than 2 decades later, people are still debating whether or not OJ actually killed Nicole Brown. It is still a hot button topic that makes for the most-watched television programming in the U.S. It also provided a lot of insight as to the interplay between the media and the judicial process.
A number of key incidents throughout the trial were noted by Linda Deutsch and Laurie Levenson as possible turning points, some more poignant than others, that serve as valuable lessons to members of the bench, bar, and media.
The main takeaways from this Bench Bar Media program were as follows:
For attorneys, it is important to always be cognizant of our actions and the perceptions we create, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Case in point: after Detective Fuhrman’s very controversial testimony, prosecutor Marcia Clark hugged Detective Fuhrman as he left the stand and the courtroom. Laurie Levenson pointed out that this was one of the major turning points in the case. Although the exact sentiment may be inarticulable, this interaction between Clark and Fuhrman left an unfavorable impression on America and the jury.
Another take away for attorneys: experiments in the courtroom are never a good idea, especially when you have no idea what the outcome will be. We are all familiar with Johnny Cochran’s famous words in his closing statement: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The prosecution allowed/requested that OJ Simpson try on the gloves that apparently did not fit, without knowing whether the glove was actually going to fit. In the end, this decision was fatal to the prosecution’s case, and could have been wholly avoided.
For judges, Linda Deutsch and Laurie Levenson stressed the importance of maintaining one’s neutrality and control of the courtroom. It certainly did not work in Judge Lance Ito’s favor to televise the trial. Judge Ito was in front of the camera, and the American people, and therefore heavily scrutinized for the outcome of this trial. His wife’s former professional relationship with Detective Fuhrman also came to the public’s attention, calling into question whether Judge Ito was really a neutral fact finder with no bias in this matter.
Finally, members of the media should always take care to report an impartial factual account rather than inserting their own bias into the story. Throughout her career, Linda Deutsch has always been praised for her fairness to her subjects, by her colleagues and even her subjects themselves. To illustrate, after the trial, OJ Simpson contacted Linda Deutsch directly and thanked her for being fair to him, and he kept in contact with her for many years. To this day, she still has not confirmed whether she believes OJ is guilty or not.
The Bench Bar Media program gave an insightful look into how the media has contributed to the judicial process in the past few decades. So many aspects of the OJ Simpson trial shaped the current legal framework as it pertains to media access to court proceedings. This year’s Bench Bar Media program illustrated the point that, while it is important to constantly be forward-thinking, it is equally important to take a moment and look back to what brought us where we are now so that we can better understand what’s to come.
– by Emiliza San Diego