News of the Simpson case is beyond judge's control

September 28, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

Judges are gods in their courtrooms.

They can be overruled by other judges in other courtrooms later on, but on their own turf they are supreme beings.

The trouble comes, however, when judges bump up against the media.

And that's because the media recognize no gods but themselves.

Operating under no written nor universally agreed-upon rules, the media are used to doing what they wish when they wish it.

So it is no surprise that Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who presides over the O. J. Simpson trial, has already clashed with the press.

Last week, Los Angeles TV station KNBC aired a story saying that a DNA match has been found between Nicole Simpson's blood and samples found on O. J. Simpson's socks.

Ito was furious, saying the report was not only inaccurate, but also polluted the pool from which he now is beginning to select a jury.

Ito was so angered by the report that he will hold a hearing, possibly today, to bar KNBC from the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building, where the trial is being held.

He also said that he is "contemplating terminating media coverage of this case" entirely.

But here Ito, representing the immovable object of the law, runs up against the irresistible force of the media.

Ito's immediate problem is that while he can bar KNBC from the courtroom, this would not stop KNBC from airing similar stories. That's because KNBC did not get its information from inside the courtroom but from outside, possibly from police leaks.

Further, barring KNBC from the courtroom would not stop the station from broadcasting the pictures coming from the courtroom. Modern technology being what it is, there are various ways in which KNBC could get pictures.

But could Ito order KNBC to run no pictures from the trial and no Simpson stories?

Well, he could. (Remember, he is a god in his own courtroom.) But he likely would be overruled, and swiftly.

A judge's ability to control his courtroom is one thing, but a judge's ability to control the press is quite another.

Ito does have California law on his side when it comes to controlling cameras in the courtroom. Rule of Court 980 states: "The court may refuse, limit or terminate film or electronic media coverage in the interests of justice to protect the rights of the parties and the dignity of the court, or to assure the orderly conduct of proceedings."

So Ito could ban the cameras. But what is the fairness of punishing all TV stations for the actions of one?

Many believe that Ito has no real intention of banning anyone and that he made his statements as a shot across the bow of the press, a warning as to what might happen if the press continued its errant ways.

But if Ito thought he could threaten the press, the press has news for him.

Yesterday, Newsday quoted unnamed sources as saying that preliminary DNA tests have found blood consistent with Nicole's on the carpeting of Simpson's Ford Bronco.

"The results of the test on the carpet," the newspaper speculated, "could provide overwhelming evidence that Simpson, 47, tracked blood from the crime scene to his Bronco."

And though Newsday publishes in New York, the report was instantly broadcast around the country, including in Los Angeles, where jurors are being picked for Simpson's jury.

Which means Judge Ito probably is even unhappier with the press today than he was last week.

Because even if he bars cameras from the courtroom, he cannot bar reporters.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that everyone in America gets a "public" trial. And in the modern era, "public" means a trial accessible to the press.

Nor can Ito control what the press reports. The First Amendment gives the press the freedom to operate free of government restraint.

Which does not mean that Ito is powerless. He can certainly make things less convenient for the press. (He could bar all but one pool reporter from the courtroom, for instance.) But that would not solve his problems.

While Judge Ito controls the O. J. Simpson trial, he does not control the O. J. Simpson story.

More and more, it looks like nobody controls that.

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