LOS ANGELES -- Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito brought an abrupt end yesterday to the first phase of jury selection in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and rejected a prosecution motion that would have postponed some juror questioning until after a hearing on scientific evidence.
Calling the process of questioning prospective jurors about possible hardships "spectacular," Judge Ito announced yesterday morning that enough jury candidates already had emerged to allow him to end the interviews that he has used to determine who could serve on the panel. Instead, he moved to excuse any prospective juror who indicated in a questionnaire that he or she might have difficulty being considered.
That left 310 who will face more grueling questioning about possible biases and exposure to press coverage when the next phase of jury selection begins early next month. At the end of that process, Judge Ito hopes to have 12 jurors and eight alternates who can impartially weigh the evidence and come to verdicts.
Meanwhile, however, Judge Ito rejected an effort by prosecutors to alter the trial schedule to shield prospective jurors from publicity, particularly about an upcoming hearing at which DNA evidence will be vigorously contested by both sides.
Yesterday's court session highlighted a day of diverse developments in the Simpson case. In addition to the proceedings in Judge Ito's court:
* Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams, appearing on the "Today" show, defended his department's handling of the case and said leaks about the investigation were coming from a variety of sources, not just police officers. The Los Angeles Police Department has launched an internal investigation to uncover the sources of some news reports, but Mr. Simpson's lawyers have asked that the state attorney general open an inquiry as well.
* Sources close to the grand jury probe of Mr. Simpson's close friend Al "A.C." Cowlings said the investigation appeared to be drawing to a close. Two people who saw Messrs. Cowlings and Simpson on a Southern California freeway and reported them to police -- touching off a low-speed pursuit broadcast live around the world -- testified before the grand jury yesterday, as did Cathy Randa, Mr. Simpson's assistant.
Ms. Randa, who has testified before the grand jury twice before, and the other witnesses yesterday were the last scheduled to testify in that probe, but prosecutors will continue to sift through the evidence. Mr. Cowlings is under investigation to determine whether he was aiding Mr. Simpson's flight from justice June 17, as authorities maintain, or whether he was merely trying to stop his lifelong friend from committing suicide, as his lawyer has stated.
As the Simpson murder case moves toward trial, attention this week has focused on the first phase of the complex process of picking a jury. Many factors complicate that task, most of them related to the enormous publicity that erupted within hours of discovery of the bodies of Mr. Simpson's former wife Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman, 25, on June 13. Mr. Simpson, 47, has proclaimed his innocence and has insisted on moving his case to trial as quickly as possible.
The speed with which the case has moved, however, has created a potentially difficult problem when it comes to picking a jury while still holding what is expected to be a lengthy and hotly contested hearing on the admissibility of DNA evidence. Judge Ito and the attorneys spent much of this week trying to decide which prospective jurors should be excused because of work or personal hardships.