Thursday, September 25, 2003
Did Ito Permit a ‘Media Circus’? Wapner: Yes. Philibosian: No.
By ROGER M. GRACE
That’s the term widely used to describe the O.J. Simpson murder trial, presided over by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito.
While that generality is often voiced, specific instances aren’t cited. The few times I peeked in on the case via television, I saw no “circus.”
Neither did former Los Angeles County District Attorney Robert H. Philibosian, who was hardly a casual viewer. He analyzed the proceedings for ABC News.
“It definitely was not a media circus,” Philibosian observed. He added, however:
“There were those in the media who exploited the case and sensationalized it. Others reported it.”
The dramatizing and embellishing by reporters was something that occurred outside the courtroom, Philibosian said, rather than being anything over which Ito had control.
As he saw it, Ito had a tough job, “trying not to be a dictator, and trying to be fair to both parties, and trying to be fair to the news media so they can do their job.”
Philibosian, a partner in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, continued:
“There are those who criticize him, but a judge has to make his or her decisions based on being on guard against second-guessing by the Court of Appeal, or any appellate court. Every judge wants to make, or should want to make, a good record.”
He referred to the need to “bullet-proof the case on appeal.”
Since only the defendant can appeal, what this implies is that Ito gave latitude to the defense “dream team” to avoid the prospect of a conviction being reversed.
Philibosian also had this thought as to what Ito faced:
“There were 10 to 20 attorneys, or more, feverishly cranking out writs and oral argument that Judge Ito had to analyze and respond to by himself.”
One criticism he offered was that “the camera work dramatized the case by doing close-ups.” He said the “panning and zooming” made Department 103 “look more like a television set than a courtroom.” Philibosian suggested it would have been preferable to have had a single camera in the back of the courtroom, showing “what you see when you’re a member of the audience.”
Across the street from the courthouse was “Camp OJ,” Court of Appeal Justice Robert M. Mallano of this district’s Div. One recollected. Tee-shirts and other Simpson trial memorabilia were hawked by street vendors.
“You can’t blame that on the trial judge,” he remarked.
Mallano, who was presiding judge when Ito was assigned the high-publicity case, also disputes criticisms of Ito in connection with the televising, saying:
“He’s not the only judge that let the TV camera in a trial.
“Decorum was kept. The jurors weren’t shown. The rules were followed.”
Among the detractors of Ito’s performance is retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner, who presided over “People’s Court,” television’s most popular courtroom show until People v. Simpson went on the air. He commented:
“The judge has to be in control, complete control. You can be assertive without being authoritarian. Probably Lance lost control of the whole case….
“He probably did some things in the course of handling the case that he wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been a celebrity matter.”
Wapner disclosed that his son, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Fred Wapner, conveyed an inquiry from Ito as to whether he’d be willing to give some advice on handling the publicity aspects of the case. He said he asked his son to relay the message to Ito to feel free to call. “He never did call me,” the elder Wapner said.
“Lance Ito happens to be a good judge, and he’s smart,” Wapner remarked. “It’s very unfortunate the way it turned out.”
Ito is reluctant to talk about the case. He hasn’t given interviews concerning it, hasn’t written a book about it, and hasn’t participated in panel discussions on any aspect of the case, not even on the broad issue of cameras in the courts.
He did tell me that before making the decision to allow electronic news coverage, he discussed it with other judges who had handled high-profile cases. He mentioned Los Angeles Superior Court Judges John Ouderkirk and Stanley Weisburg and then-Judge Robert Altman.
“I talked to a lot of people about it,” Ito said. “I did what I did.”
As to Wapner, he recounted, “I did chat with him briefly, some place, but not in great detail.”
Ito said that when people tell him he’s the most famous judge in history, his “standard line” is: “No, that’s Judge Wapner.”
He said of Wapner:
“His show was dignified. It was informative. He was wildly popular.”
Ito’s show lasted for 133 episodes. There were no reruns, no residuals.
Next week: a look at the courtroom simulation shows presently on the air.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns