Linda Deutsch: The AP’s Trial Examiner

By: Joe Strupp

When Linda Deutsch began covering trials for The Associated Press’ Los Angeles bureau in 1967, O.J. Simpson was a star running back at USC, Patty Hearst was a junior high school student, and Michael Jackson was the 9-year-old lead singer of a rising new music group.

But in the years that followed, as each of those three and numerous others in and around Southern California have faced battles with the law, Deutsch has closely covered their criminal trials, earning accolades for accuracy, completeness, and most of all, balanced reporting.

During her 40 years in the AP bureau, her assignments have ranged from the Charles Manson trial in 1970 to the current murder case against record producer Phil Spector. In between, she’s reported on nearly every major courtroom action involving big names, from Daniel Ellsberg to John Delorean. “I have the greatest respect for Linda,” Judge Lance Ito, judge in the Simpson case, tells E&P in an e-mail. “Her reporting is precise, accurate, and balanced.”

Ito was one of several notables who attended a 40th anniversary party for her in January. Others included defense attorneys for Michael Jackson and Robert Blake, and Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, a regular TV commentator. The latter says Deutsch is “amazing, because she actually stays objective. She also takes in the whole scene.”

For the 63-year-old Deutsch, who is single and claims to be “married to the AP,” her approach is simple professionalism and curiosity. “I was a writer from the day I was born,” she says, speaking by phone from her office in the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts building. “I was very lucky because I knew what I wanted to do for a long time.” Living in the Hollywood Hills, among neighbors that include “Everybody Loves Raymond” star Doris Roberts, Deutsch says she is not swayed by the celebrity status of many of her subjects.

After covering some of the most chaotic court events of the 20th century, she says she still believes in the jury system: “Occasionally, they miss things, but for the most part, they get it right. For most of them in these cases, it is the most important thing they will do, so I think they really want to do it right.”

A Perth Amboy, N.J., native, Deutsch got interested in news at age 12 when she was president of one of the first Elvis Presley fan clubs and published a club newsletter, “Elvis News,” for about five years. (She plans to attend Memphis’ Elvis Week in August.) She worked part time at the Perth Amboy (N.J.) Evening News and the Asbury Park Press in Neptune, N.J., during college, graduating in 1965. AP CEO Tom Curley, himself a veteran of the Evening News, says Deutsch’s reputation at the paper when he arrived was legendary: “She was someone everyone pointed to and said, ‘Do what she does.'”

Deutsch was drawn to California in 1966 by an uncle who edited a small daily in Thousand Oaks, Calif. After less than a year at The Sun in San Bernardino, she headed to Los Angeles, where she became the only woman in a 20-person AP bureau. Her first big story came on June 5, 1968, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles; she was in the bureau when the call came in after midnight from reporter Bob Thomas. “We filed and filed and filed all night,” she recalls.

That led to work as a backup reporter during the trial of Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy’s assassin, in 1969. A year later, she was on the Charles Manson trial, which she described as “chaos” and “insane mayhem.” Deutsch said the Manson trial also showed her the camaraderie of reporters. “You become like a family,” she says of the fellow reporters, many of whom still hold reunions.

From there, Deutsch went on to cover the cases of Ellsberg, Hearst, Angela Davis, and Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. At one point, when Hearst was still at large, the AP assigned her to spend a year looking for the victim-turned-fugitive. “I met a lot of crazy radicals,” she says of the search that ended in frustration. She also found herself briefly in Guam covering the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

Through the ’80s and early ’90s there was William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial, the Menendez brothers, and three Rodney King-related trials. “That was the heartbreak of my life,” she says of the first King trial, in which four police officers were acquitted, sparking the massive riots: “It was the one time that really challenged my belief that a jury would do the right thing.”

In 1995, however, Deutsch reached the pinnacle when Simpson went on trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman. Because of the heavy media attention on the case, Deutsch became more well known, and people would recognize her in the supermarket and at parties. She cited an incident in Honolulu as she left a hotel where a conference was being held and a cab driver recognized her and ushered her into his car.

In the end, she remains unsure if Simpson committed the killings, but believes the prosecution did not prove its case. “He wasn’t convicted because the evidence wasn’t there,” she says. “The defense was fabulous.”

Simpson says she provided the “fairest reporting” on his circus of a trial. “It was so fair, I went out of my way to contact her and tell her. … She is the only reporter who has my number,” Simpson tells E&P. “Linda is really the only person in the media I would talk to because she doesn’t change my words, and will put it in context.”

She also believes Ito got a bad rap. “He was in favor of television, he thought people should see the trial, I will never fault him for that,” she says. “Had O.J. been convicted, Ito would have been the hero of the world. People didn’t want O.J. acquitted. They felt he was guilty.”

Deutsch adds that the Simpson trial “had a real polarizing press corps — and I took a lot of heat for not taking a position.”

Yale Galanter, Simpson’s current attorney, says Deutsch “was the only one who said later that she did not believe they proved the case.” She says she has spoken with Simpson three or four times a year, usually to ask for comments on updates or new information, such as his controversial 2006 book ‘If I Did It.’ She even received a surprise phone call from him last Christmas.

Since the Simpson trial, Deutsch has continued on the celebrity legal beat, covering the courtroom battles of Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, Winona Ryder, and others, as well as any other interesting cases — such as the paternity battle over Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. “People trust her,” says Harland Braun, a former Los Angeles prosecutor and local defense attorney who briefly represented Blake and defended one of the Rodney King officers. “She understands the system and is even-keeled.”

Although Deutsch was involved in an AP book about the Simpson trial, titled Verdict, she has never written a lengthy account of any of the cases. She says she’ll start work later this year on a memoir of all of the major trials she has covered.

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