It happened in Los Angeles in 1994. The city, if not the nation, was totally captivated by the O.J. Simpson murder case. It was 8AM in early November when I stepped off the elevator on the ninth floor of the Criminal Courts Building, the floor referred to as Murderer’s Row. These courtrooms were used exclusively for the “serious cases:” death penalty trials, gang murders and high publicity cases.
I was in the midst of defending such a case in one of those courtrooms.
I went through the metal detector used only on this floor and hefted my two bulging brief cases, stuffed with trial material, down the hall. Members of Judge Ito’s courtroom TV crew were lounging on a bench reading the sports pages, so I knew the O.J. trial was still in the jury selection phase. Judge Ito had ordered that the faces of the jury must not appear during the TV coverage of the trail.
I stopped and joked with Johnny Cochran, commenting on the fact that his letter-thin titanium brief case was all he needed for the “trial of the century,” while I was burdened with these shipping crates. He facetiously replied it was due to his “vigorous preparation,” which had been a running joke about our different approaches to trial work when we had previously tried a case together.
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My morning was spent trying my “simple” case down the hall. During the lunch break, I was waiting in the hall for my jury to leave in order to avoid sharing an elevator with them, when I was approached by a friend, the O.J. defense jury consultant. She pulled me aside and giddily said, “We just won the case.”
I gave her a puzzled look. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “You’re still picking a jury.”
“We have a jury,” she said, and gave me an excited look. “And this jury will never convict him.”
I chalked up her assessment to professional euphoria and went to lunch. When I returned I took a moment to look in on this pre-cooked jury. I had to admit, from a defense perspective they did look pretty good. Selecting jurors in a criminal case is certainly not an exact science, but both sides develop certain visual signposts: race, age, whether the mouth has a cynical downturn, the little things. So just on appearance, this one touched all the defense bases.
At the end of the trial day I was taking an elevator up to the top floor to check on another case before starting another long night preparing for the next day’s witnesses. As the elevator emptied out on the lower floors, I was left alone with a high ranking DA with whom I was acquainted. I told him I had seen the O.J. jury and was a bit surprised the prosecution had accepted them. He turned to me with a condescending look and said “Twelve zebras would convict him with the evidence we have.”
During the following days the courthouse “wire” started to fill in the back story about this jury The DA was up for reelection and wanted a “diverse” jury; the case was filed downtown, rather than in Santa Monica where the crime occurred, in order for the DA to have access to the news media; the two prosecutors, a woman and an African-American, were selected for the optics, not their trial skills; neither prosecutor was likely to use the publicity springboard from the case to run against the DA in the future.
We all know how it turned out. I just wish I had that jury.
Ed Rucker, one of the most prominent defense lawyers of our time, tried over 200 jury trials, representing defendants in 13 death penalty cases. He is the author of The Inevitable Witness, an acclaimed legal thriller, which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.