With each juror removed from the OJ panel, America's faith in the system takes a hit A Jury of Our Fears

June 16, 1995|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,Sun Columnist

I don't want to seem alarmist here. But, if you haven't been watching the O.J. trial much these days, you may have missed the fact that the jury system -- the last institution anybody in America believed in -- is in the process of blowing up.

(Actually, if you're anything like the typical O.J. juror, you could have been watching, and you still might have missed the fact. Or else you might have blamed it on rogue cop Mark Fuhrman.)

I know we did believe in the jury system, for about a couple of hundred years.

Once upon a time, in fact just before the Dancing Itos phenomenon, juries were the one institution we still held dear, the one we embraced as, well, ultimately American. It is, possibly, the purest form of democracy left to us.

What else is there to believe in? You know how we feel about government. Or any politicians. Or (ouch) the media. Or, certainly, lawyers. And baseball players, don't get me started. We don't even trust doctors anymore, although if I've got my AMA literature right, we do sue them whenever possible.

But juries. Ah, juries. They're different. Twelve men (now men and women) tried and true, as the saying goes.

We believed in juries because juries are us; we are juries, except when we can find an excuse not to serve, as in one case when a potential juror -- this is true -- wrote in to say he couldn't make it because he was "under a doctor's car."

There's mystical quality about juries. You've seen the movie. You bring together average, simple Amer icans -- uneducated, educated, doesn't matter; but good people because America is good and we're Americans -- into a room where, in the face of personal bias and often poor ventilation, fairness and justice always prevail.

And then came O.J.

And, suddenly, before our disbelieving eyes, the jury panel turns into a "Geraldo" panel.

Judge Ito -- remember when you liked Judge Ito? That's how long this trial has been going on -- tosses these guys like he's an umpire and the jurors are so many Earl Weavers kicking dirt on home plate. Ten jurors have been tossed; 14 to go. The trial is like an Apollo countdown, only with more delays.

Those jurors who were removed had variously lied to the judge, were allegedly working on books, were passing notes, were stepping on the feet of jurors of different colors, were staring at their colleagues in an attempt to intimidate, had worked for Hertz, had shared O.J.'s doctor, and had, in the case of one juror, simply broken down. "I can't take it anymore," flight attendant Tracy Hampton told the judge. Neither could Ito.

That's not the worst of it.

In the middle of the never-ending trial came the ritual of the post-bounce interview, in which the dismissed juror -- chased down by the bigfoot media -- gives us an up-to-date account, in play-by-play fashion, of life in the jury room. This has never happened before. And maybe we should be glad for that.

Here's the kind of thing we learned recently from one dismissed juror, one Willie Cravin, a postal manager with two years of college who was kicked off the panel for, well, staring: "[Simpson] was still innocent. Nobody had proven him guilty. There was nothing for him to sweat at this point."

Is he watching the same trial the rest of us -- come on, you too -- were watching. No case? Nothing to sweat?

When Yale Kamisar, a law professor at the University of Michigan, heard this report, and others like it, he was sweating plenty.

"They come before the TV cameras and say things like, 'As far as I'm concerned, the prosecution hasn't shown anything yet,' " Kamisar says. "It's like the boxer who's been knocked down three times and says the other guy hasn't laid a glove on him. Where have these people been? The statements are so baffling it makes you wonder if they had simply made up their minds before the proceedings began.

"This really shakes me up."

You want a bottom line? You want to be shaken up, too? According to the polls, a majority of us think Simpson is guilty. A similar percentage think Simpson will walk anyway. Few people have any faith this jury, in this trial, can deliver justice.

What's going on here?

Reflecting society

Well, what isn't going on here? You looked at society recently? That's what's going on here.

The reports from inside the O.J. jury tell tales of racial divide, tales of the impact of big media (even E! is televising the trial because if it happens in Hollywood it happens on E!), tales of get-rich-quick schemes. Everybody's got a book -- even Johnnie Cochran's ex-wife has published her memoirs. Yesterday a judge ruled that ex-juror Michael Knox's book -- "The Private Diaries of an O.J. Juror" -- could be published later this month.

It's the ultimate meeting of celebrity and commerce. This conjunction seems to be getting in the way of justice, which is, presumably, what trials are supposed to be about.

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