Poor blacks may hold Simpson's fate

October 12, 1994|By Roger Simon | Roger Simon,Sun Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- It is all taking place in the wrong place.

The trial of O. J. Simpson is taking place in the bleak concrete box that is the Criminal Courts Building of even bleaker downtown Los Angeles.

The murders with which Simpson is charged were committed miles from here in the posh, leafy-green neighborhood of Brentwood. And while Brentwood is too small to have its own courthouse, there is a perfectly good one right next door in equally posh Santa Monica.

Simpson could have been -- some would say should have been -- tried there, near the scene of the crime. This is what ordinarily happens to defendants in Los Angeles.

But nothing about this case is ordinary.

And while hundreds of reporters still spend their time tramping ,, through Brentwood, gawking at the crime scene and lunching at Mezzaluna, they would probably be better off walking through downtown L.A.'s Skid Row or through the Latino neighborhood of East L.A. or the black neighborhood of Watts.

Because that is where Simpson's jury is going to come from. It is going to come from those neighborhoods that radiate outward in a circle from downtown Los Angeles, those neighborhoods that Simpson has rarely, if ever, ventured through.

Which is the irony: The people that O. J. Simpson has spent a lifetime avoiding now will determine what happens to the rest of his life.

Not that Simpson is complaining.

In fact, the news is very, very good for him. And this is why:

There are 11 court districts in the vast sprawl that is Los Angeles County.

Ten of them produce juries that are disproportionately white compared with the county's overall population.

One of them, the Central Court District of downtown Los Angeles, however, produces juries that are disproportionately black.

And that is where O. J. Simpson is being tried.

Ron Chaleff, an attorney who tries many "downtown" cases, believes the final makeup of Simpson's jury is likely to be 40 percent to 60 percent minority members.

So does this give Simpson a break, a greater chance of finding a sympathetic jury?

Well, yes. You could say that.

"It is a definite boon for the defense," Edgar Butler, professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside and co-author of "Race and the Jury," said. "The race of the jury makes a real difference to the outcome of a trial."

But how did this come to be? Who changed the location of Simpson's trial?

Mike Botula, news secretary to Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, told me the police determined the location.

"Normally, in the geographic scheme of things, this case would have gone to Santa Monica for trial," he said. "But the Los Angeles police department determined that its elite robbery/homicide unit should handle it and that meant it came downtown."

Boss disagrees

Which is not at all what his boss, Gil Garcetti, said when I caught up with him yesterday morning.

"It's being tried downtown because it's a long-duration case," Garcetti, who has one of those Hollywood complexions that makes him look as if he is lit from within, said. "So the case could have been tried here or Van Nuys."

And Van Nuys was, indeed, where the Menendez brothers' murder trial was held.

But there is another theory as to why prosecutors moved the O. J. Simpson trial to the worst possible location for them and the best possible location for Simpson:

Gil Garcetti, at least one national prominent criminal defense attorney believes, is an idiot.

"Mr. Garcetti has an extraordinarily poor record of losing major cases," attorney Barry Tarlow told me. "Mr. Garcetti simply shot himself in the foot. His only duty is to win this case. If he loses this case, he will probably be booted out of office by the citizens.

"But Garcetti would have been significantly better off trying this case in Santa Monica than in downtown Los Angeles. Downtown, he will probably get a majority minority member jury. A downtown jury is a very tough jury for a prosecutor."

Tarlow believes that Garcetti goofed by attempting to get an indictment of Simpson through a grand jury.

The grand jury, which meets only downtown, would have allowed Garcetti to keep the prosecution case secret and would have kept his witnesses free from cross-examination.

But Garcetti's plan was foiled by a judge who found that the grand jury had been tainted by outside publicity.

So the grand jury was dismissed, and Garcetti was forced to take his case to a preliminary hearing instead.

"And both the preliminary hearing and now the trial had to be tried downtown, because that is where Garcetti began with the grand jury," Tarlow said. "If he tried to take the case to Santa Monica, it would have looked as if he was trying to avoid a black

jury! And so Garcetti was trapped."

Rodney King recalled

But how about another theory: Maybe Garcetti, a professional politician, wanted to avoid another riot like the one that happened after the Rodney King verdict.

In 1991, King, a black motorist was stopped by police after a long car chase.

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