A judge of note for Calif.'s most costly murder trial

February 13, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

O. J. Simpson Notebook:

You might think that Judge Lance Ito is a little busy these days.

You might think that with a double-murder trial on his hands, he might not have time to -- off angry letters.

But you would be wrong.

On the day of opening statements, I sat in the courtroom directly behind Ito's parents, James and Toshiko Ito.

They are very small and were sitting on cushions that they had brought with them to court.

During the dull parts of the trial, Mrs. Ito began reading the December 1994 issue of Reader's Digest. (Reading by audience members is not usually allowed during court, but I thought it best not to report this to the deputies.)

Virtually every newscast in America made mention of the fact that "even" the judge's parents were in court on opening day, and pictures of the two were broadcast around the world.

This, however, caused someone named Bill Gourlay of Westlake Village, Calif., to write the following letter to the Los Angeles Times:

"The arrogance and exercise of power by Judge Lance Ito is deplorable. How could he reserve seats in the courtroom for his parents at the expense of the unbiased public? Does he think this is show business?"

The newspaper printed the letter at the bottom of the editorial page. So who would even notice it?

Well, Judge Ito, for one.

And last Sunday, the following Letter to the Editor appeared:

"I was surprised to read the letter labeling me as arrogant for having the temerity to invite my parents to attend a court session [of the O. J. Simpson trial]. I had seen it as a gesture of great love and deep respect for my parents. Go figure."

It was signed: Judge Lance A. Ito, Superior Court, Los Angeles.

As it happens, Ito distributes five courtroom seats every day to whomever he wishes. But you can't say that the public is getting stiffed.

Three days after opening statements, not a single member of the public showed up to occupy one of the six courtroom seats set aside for them.

*

It is now certain that the Simpson case will be the costliest murder case in California history.

As of Dec. 31, 1994, the last month for which figures have been assembled, Los Angeles County had spent $1,777,371 on the Simpson case.

The Night Stalker murder case cost California $1,811,260, but the Simpson case almost certainly went over that mark in January.

And the case has already surpassed other famous murder cases: The Hillside Strangler case cost $1,535,830. The Charles Manson case cost $768,838, and the case against Sirhan Sirhan cost $592,806.

But Simpson is unlikely to challenge the record set in the McMartin Pre-School case, which did not involve allegations of homicide but cost the county $13,230,971 and ended without a single conviction.

There is no reliable figure for what Simpson has spent, but some estimate that it surpassed $5 million before opening statements.

Simpson, it is believed, began this case with assets of about $10 million. The Los Angeles County budget, on the other hand, was $14.5 billion last year.

So if this trial results in a hung jury, the county is in far better financial shape for a new trial than O. J. Simpson.

*

Dream Team defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, an Easterner, shocked Judge Ito when he rose at the end of one recent court session.

While it is routine in other parts of America for everyone in court to rise whenever the judge enters or leaves, California is not like other parts of America.

Which Bailey must have forgotten.

Because when Judge Ito was about to leave the bench, Bailey leapt to his feet.

Everyone else sat and stared at him.

The following exchange then ensued:

Ito: Mr. Bailey, are you rising to speak or rising to say good-bye?

Bailey: (flustered) I was rising out of respect. I think your honor is going to leave the bench.

Ito: (dryly) Thank you, sir. A tradition long forgotten in California.

The next day, not even Bailey stood.

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