Trial by trial

March 08, 1995|By Russell Baker

AFTER MANY years of watching the most widely celebrated trial in human history, I slipped quietly into a coma. Johnnie Cochran objected. I was deeply flattered.

Johnnie Cochran was the most brilliant defense attorney to put a leaden thumb on the scales of justice since Socrates argued his own case. Now he was objecting to my very own coma. Surely there were rich book possibilities here.

Judge Lance Ito dealt summarily with him. "Cochran," said Judge Ito, "go eat your prunes." Marcia Clark objected that it was unfair to give dietary advice to the defense.

"Nuts," replied Judge Ito.

"Perhaps Your Honor does not understand the situation," said Ms. Clark. "You are surrounded by the Los Angeles prosecutor's office und vill be annihilated unless you surrender by Christmas Eve."

Judge Ito called for a 20-minute recess, which lasted three days. This led to 48 hours of commercials. During an intermission between arguments for headache nostrums vs. denture adhesives, I was horrified to hear Greta van Susteren tell CNN that capital punishment was possible in cases like mine.

On Court TV, however, Fred Graham said I'd probably escape the death penalty by invoking the doctrine of habeas schmabeas. This ancient principle, enunciated by Cato the Younger with the permission of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, forbids executing anybody who slips into a coma at a television trial lasting longer than three years.

Unfortunately, a CBS guest lawyer said the Supreme Court was sick and tired of both habeas schmabeas and Byrd's talk about Catos, whether Younger or Elder.

Then -- possible salvation. A good woman, a 30-year Los Angeles resident, had an alibi for me. Though her Hispanic roots went back to the conquistadors, she testified in Urdu that I could not be in a coma because she had just spent the weekend with my lawyers, who told her I wasn't.

"Why is this woman testifying in Urdu instead of her native Spanish?" asked F. Lee Bailey, the most dynamic defense lawyer since Perry Mason made a monkey out of Hamilton Burger once a week for 20 years on CBS.

"Rephrase your description," Judge Ito cautioned me. "You should say that Perry 'made hamburger out of Ham Burger once a week.' "

"I object," thundered Marcia Clark. "This constant dietary dialogue between the bench and defense counsel is outrageous."

"Oh, button your lip," said the judge.

"Anybody want to answer my question?" asked F. Lee Bailey.

"Isn't it obvious?" I said. "Having lived in the U.S. for 30 years, the lady has forgotten her Spanish."

"But why does she testify in Urdu?" insisted F. Lee Bailey.

"You're pretty dense for a hotshot defense lawyer," Judge Ito observed. "If the lady spoke English she wouldn't need a translator. Then she wouldn't be able to drive all of us absolutely batty for an entire week."

"But, Your Honor," said F. Lee Bailey.

"Overruled," said Judge Ito. And off he went to remove a female juror whose high-piled Passaic pompadour was obstructing the vision of three jurors.

Alan Dershowitz phoned a year or two later when the trial resumed. "As your lawyer . . ." he said.

"Alan Dershowitz is my lawyer? The same Alan Dershowitz I saw in that terrific Jeremy Irons movie about Claus von Bulow is my lawyer?"

He said to cut the et cetera, as he was due on the Larry King show to demand that the entire Los Angeles Police Department be indicted for letting me slip into a coma.

If that didn't get me off, he said, he was ready to demand that the Supreme Court be impeached for contempt of Cato the Younger.

Judge Ito insisted I hang up the telephone, but suggested I urge Mr. Dershowitz to drop by the court some day as he might pick up some excellent dietary advice.

"Your Honor," cried Marcia Clark, "I object most vigorously to the court's constantly favoring the defense in nutritional matters and demand equal advice to the prosecution."

"Eat your heart out," said Judge Ito.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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