AS THE SEPT. 19 trial date of O.J. Simpson nears, new attention is being focused on the media’s role in what is expected to be a legal extravaganza.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who will preside at the murder trial, ruled that reporters may not view photos of the bodies of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the victims Simpson is accused of stabbing to death. Such a privilege, Ito said, would “inevitably lead to graphic, sensationalistic, lurid and prurient descriptions” that could jeopardize Simpson’s right to a fair trial.
The judge also refused to unseal transcripts of five closed-door proceedings held in July that concerned witness safety and the mysterious yellow envelope defense lawyers turned over to the court during Simpson’s preliminary hearing.
In another development, state legislative committees in Sacramento, citing massive pre-trial publicity in the Simpson case, approved two bills that would make it illegal for a witness to sell information about a crime either before or during a trial.
Sen. Quentin Kopp (Ind.-San Francisco), the author of one of the bills, cited the example of a potential prosecution witness, Jill Shively, who sold her account of allegedly seeing Simpson near the murder scene to television’s “Hard Copy” show for $5,000.
However, the bills, if passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Pete Wilson, would not become law until Jan. 1. Thus, they would not apply to any witness in the Simpson trial unless the sale of a story occurred after that date. Violators would be subject to a six-month jail term or a fine of up to three times the amount of the money they accepted, or both.
The bills are being opposed by the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., the California Broadcasters Association and other media groups.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who presented the other bill, said amendments have been added that would exempt news reporters, freelancers and stringers who sell material to news organizations.
CNPA general counsel Thomas Newton told E&P he welcomed the amendments but CNPA would still oppose both bills on First Amendment principals.
“They would have a chilling effect by restricting news and information,” he explained. “A reporter who sees a crime committed automatically becomes an eye witness.”
Newton asserted that, under the two proposed bills, the amateur cameraman who videotaped the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles would be considered a criminal. The tape was broadcast nationwide and was used as evidence in the trial of four police officers accused of the beating.
Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, warned against making new laws based solely on the Simpson case. “We need to let the dust settle before we can decide what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary in the judicial process,” he said.
In an editorial opposing the two bills, the Oakland Tribune asked: ” . . . can it be proven that witnesses who are paid by news media organizations to tell their stories are lying? . . . . isn’t it wholly possible that the stories that are sold to certain news media outlets are indeed truthful? If so, why would the same stories told in court not be believable?”
Meanwhile, Fox Broadcasting Co. withdrew a plan to air its dramatization of “The O.J. Simpson story” six days before the start of the trial, despite a request by Simpson’s attorney, Robert Shapiro, not to broadcast the program in the interest of “fair play.”
Fox changed its mind after Los Angeles Times tv critic Howard Rosenberg commented in the paper that Shapiro, in calling for fair play, was using words “not in the vocabulary of Fox, which probably thought he was speaking a foreign language. Now, if he had appealed to its principal of ‘cynical opportunism’ he might have gotten somewhere.”
Rosenberg described Fox’s decision as “good business . . . but bad citizenship.” Fox announced it would show the film after the trial.