District Attorney grapples with Simpson's popularity

June 21, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The task facing Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti in the O. J. Simpson case is daunting and unparalleled: He must try to win murder convictions against an American sports legend well known to the public for his charm and grace.

Within hours of Friday's bizarre nationally televised spectacle of crowds cheering the beloved football superstar as he led police across Southern California freeways, Mr. Garcetti took to the airwaves, launching a publicity offensive on national TV news programs.

ABC "Nightline." "The CBS Evening News." "The NBC Nightly News." the "Today" show. Even a special night-time edition of "Good Morning America."

Mr. Garcetti said he recognizes that public perception is important in high-profile cases, and that he, like defense lawyers, must use the media to shape popular opinion. Experts say he can't let public sympathy for the accused overwhelm his case.

Mr. Garcetti said his primary goal during his interviews has been to stress the pressing issue of domestic violence. Also, his high-profile initiative has served as a means of focusing attention on the homicide victims, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, rather than Mr. Simpson.

"After seeing how the media was responding, how some members of the community were responding to the situation," said Mr. Garcetti, "the secondary purpose [of the TV appearances] was to remind people that the real tragedy, the real sympathy should be extended to the two people who were killed and to the children of Nicole Simpson."

"When you say 'well-known,' " Mr. Garcetti continued, of O. J. Simpson, "you mean superficially well known. It is a daunting challenge perhaps [to try him], but I do have faith in the criminal justice system, in the prosecutors who will handle the case, and I'm confident we can select a jury that will be fair and impartial and will understand their responsibilities to act within the law."

Mr. Garcetti's public comments, which included an ultimately incorrect prediction on the "Today" show that defense attorney Robert Shapiro would seek a postponement of Mr. Simpson's arraignment, have drawn fire from Mr. Shapiro.

Calling Mr. Garcetti's remarks "unconscionable," Mr. Shapiro said that "to make any comments before an arraignment undermines the system of fair play."

Legal experts said yesterday that Mr. Garcetti risks alienating members of the public who might feel that the retired football star is being persecuted rather than prosecuted.

"It's a fine line," said Loyola School of Law Professor Laurie Levenson, "because the defense will say the district attorney's office is unfairly trying the case in the press and will also claim that it is doing so because it does not have enough evidence to win in the courtroom."

Since the mid-1980s, several high-visibility actions filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office have ended in acquittals or mistrials, including the Rodney King beating case and the Menendez brothers murder trial.

Mr. Garcetti, who established a domestic violence unit in the prosecutor's office shortly after his election last year, has made a flurry of statements on spousal abuse.

"We in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office unfortunately are filing one domestic violence homicide case every nine days," he told "NBC Nightly News" on Sunday.

On the "CBS Evening News" Saturday, Mr. Garcetti was far more specific about the Simpson case. In that appearance, he criticized a municipal jurist who allowed Mr. Simpson to pick his own psychiatrist and receive counseling by phone after pleading no contest to beating his then-wife, Nicole, in 1989

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