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Wilson spent most of her career at the New York Daily News when it was the most popular daily newspaper in America. Though assigned to everything from political conventions to space shots, she gained her greatest renown for writing detailed daily accounts of celebrated criminal trials, including that of Confidential Magazine's publishers in the 1950s for invading the privacy of Maureen O'Hara, Dorothy Dandridge, and other stars; the Sam Sheppard and Carl Coppolino trials, which brought F. Lee Bailey to prominence in the 1960s; the prolonged insanity of the Manson Family trials at the beginning of the 1970s; Bailey's losing effort in the case of Patty Hearst, a.k.a. Symbionese Liberation Army guerrilla "Tania"; and the conviction of girls'-school headmistress Jean Harris for murdering her inconstant lover, diet doctor Herman Tarnower, in the early 1980s. Wilson retired after the Harris trial because, in her view, control of the Daily News had descended to editors who "neither knew nor cared about how to handle a story as complicated as a trial for a stylish tabloid like the News." Wilson's unabated bitterness toward those she considers responsible for her beloved paper's demise may or may not be justified, but the sort of strong, canny editors she lauds throughout her book might have suggested downplaying it a bit here. Nevertheless, it's easy to see why Wilson misses the excitement and camaraderie of a time when the same group of big-name reporters showed up for every major trial, editors gave reporters enough space to provide a full account of a day's events, and "the idea was to take your job—not yourself—seriously."
No deeper than one would expect from tabloid journalism, but just as lively and amusing.
The O.J. Simpson Trial: Flash and Trash
It was a short, sad epitaph for the O.J. Simpson trial, from one of the more thoughtful defense attorneys. Even though he was on the side that was mightily victorious, the side that got for the defendant the fastest acquittal verdict in big trial history, he said at the end: "There are no winners here."
It was Barry Scheck—what was a guy like that doing with a group like this?—and he was prophetic. The losers? The trial itself, the defendant himself, the lawyers, the judge, and the biggest loser of all—the public.
Once embarrassingly trumpeted as "the trial of the century" by reporters who apparently never before had been involved in high-profile cases, the Simpson trial now is referred to as a circus, a fiasco, an aberration in the criminal justice system by law journals, newspapers, magazine articles, and in speeches. For me, the pretrial proceedings were an early warning. I was dismayed by what I called "the flash and the trash" surrounding the case—the hype, the manipulation of unseasoned media, the bias shown by commentators even before they heard evidence from the courtroom, the publication of rumors and gossip and leaks that violated every principle of trial reporting my colleagues and I practiced.
As everybody who ever worked with me knows, my No. 1 instruction was, "Stay in the courtroom. The only important news is what the jury hears from the witness chair, what the judge rules on, and what the lawyers say inside the courtroom. The rest is junk." I preachedthat in the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s. It was encouraging to read, in the 1996 calendar distributed by the Freedom Forum, the group organized to protect the First Amendment, this quote: "Evidence is not evidence until it comes from [the courtroom], not the 11 o'clock news." The quote was attributed to Judge Lance Ito. My second most important instruction: take your reader inside the courtroom with you, describe everything, explain everything.
Even when an important event took place outside the courtroom, as when President Nixon declared Charlie Manson guilty while his trial was still in progress, that story was used separately in the News, and was not incorporated into the trial story except for a brief reference. Which is why for decades, News readers learned every detail of the big trials, knew exactly what the jury had heard as opposed to what had transpired outside the courtroom, and understood why jurors returned the verdicts they did. After the Simpson trial, however, I could tell from the questions the public asked that the viewers couldn't figure out what testimony had or had not been heard by the jury, and what was plain junk from outside the courtroom.
It wasn't just the supermarket tabloids and the TV shows, which for the first time dominated and influenced a high-profile case. It was a magazine like the New Yorker, which in a pretrial article accused a cop of a heinous crime—planting evidence against the defendant, the bloody glove—without proof of any kind. Obviously given to the writer by a Simpson lawyer, this was a defense "theory," an accusation which should have been revealed only in the courtroom. The article was written about Detective Mark Fuhrman, who proved to be not only a disgusting bigot, but a stupid one as well when he walked right into the trap that F. Lee Bailey set for him in cross-examination. But nobody in this country, not even a Fuhrman, should be accused publicly without proof, without a chance to respond, of a crime that in this case carried a penalty of life imprisonment solely because the defense wanted to plant a theory in a willing magazine.
Countless times in my career, a prosecutor or defense attorney offered me an "exclusive" tip beneficial, of course, to his own side. And every time I said, "That's great. When it comes out in court, I assure you it will be my lead that day." Usually the exclusive never surfaced again. The lawyers and I had a great understanding: if they tried to sell and I didn't buy, well, they were just doing their job, and I was doing mine. No hard feelings.
When the trial started and the pressure mounted, the flash and trash escalated. I watched it every minute of every day, and although this was a serious trial with the accused facing life in prison, I sometimes got the feeling I was watching the Doo Dah Parade—the outrageous send-up of the pomp and ceremony of the Rose Parade. With TV and the supermarket tabloids and the magazines and mainstream newspapers flying off in pursuit of the likes of Kato Kaelin, there definitely were times when the Simpson trial became the the Doo Dah Parade of criminal justice.
As the case continued, I became increasingly worried about how the Simpson trial would affect future coverage of high-profile trials. I had fought for years to bring cameras into the courtroom. Televising how a trial unfolds, I told judges and lawyers and other trial reporters, would enlighten those millions of citizens whose taxes pay for the courtrooms, the judges, the prosecutors, and the experts. The people have a right to see justice at work, I argued.
There was more posturing by lawyers on TV cameras outside the courtroom than inside the O.J. trial room. A gag order would have prevented that and would have stopped the lawyers from using the compliant media to air unfounded charges and to make biased and often incorrect statements to the public.
With the enormous worldwide publicity of the Simpson trial, millions got their first look, but it was a worst look, and many trial-followers, even those who believed O.J. was innocent and deserved an acquittal, were left cynical and disillusioned. The Simpson case will be remembered as the trial that got out of control, the trial that tainted nearly everyone involved in it.
O.J. Simpson, with his life returned to him, should have been the biggest winner, but he has lost and lost and lost. It becomes more evident with every effort he makes that his former life, his golden life, is gone forever.
He has lost his credibility, his popularity, his role as the real-life American success story, the poor black kid who went from ghetto rags to Brentwood riches.
He has lost his image as the sunny, funny, graceful athlete beloved by sponsors who discovered he could sell anything to anybody. He was remarkable, and the advertisers knew it, because although he was big and black and beautiful, he was nonthreatening to white buyers, the men admiring him because he was a sports legend, the women because he seemed so easygoing and articulate and charming. Now the sponsors who made him a millionaire are gone.
O.J. will go to his grave swearing his innocence, vainly trying to convince an unforgiving segment of the public that the verdict was just and that he did not get away with murder. But the acquittal verdict didn't bring closure. Simpson is still out there defending himself, claiming he was victimized by the media, even though the pretrial media coverage apparently had no effect on the jurors who acquitted him so fast. The rehashing of the trial in books and on talk shows will go on for years, like the Sheppard case.
Dr. Sam was first convicted of murdering his wife at a trial in Cleveland that was the most publicized of its time, and then was acquitted at a new trial made possible by the rising young Boston lawyer F. Lee Bailey. What the Sheppard trial taught me was that verdicts do not change public opinion. Dr. Sam, like O.J., had his defenders who published books, fought to establish his innocence when he was in prison, and exulted when he was finally exonerated. But those who were convinced more than 40 years ago that Dr. Sam killed Marilyn Sheppard believe it to this day, with Dr. Sheppard himself long dead. They believed that justice triumphed when he was convicted; they believed he got away with murder when he was acquitted.
If not-guilty verdicts could change the mindset of the public, Sheppard's son would not have spent his life trying to prove his father's innocence. In Mockery of Just ice, published in 1995, the son offers painstakingly gathered evidence that his father did not murder his mother, that he was railroaded when he was convicted, and that he was properly acquitted at his second trial. And it really doesn't matter.
Has there ever been in our time such rancor, bad-mouthing, ill-will and contempt exhibited among famous lawyers as there was during and after the Simpson trial? High-priced the lawyers were, but not high class.
Johnnie Cochran, Jr., the lead defense attorney, was savaged not only in a posttrial book written by prosecutor Christopher Darden, but also in the posttrial book written by his teammate, Robert Shapiro. Then Shapiro and Darden got their lumps. A law journal reviewer who read both books said they were both "whiners." Darden was "a crybaby" who was "simply outmatched" by Cochran in the courtroom; Shapiro was an "opportunist" who had to undertake damage control when the case unexpectedly "took an unpopular turn."
In another book published during the trial, Cochran was described by his ex-wife as a physically abusive, unscrupulous man, and an adulterous husband who abandoned his white mistress, the mother of his only son, when he took another woman as his second wife. Would such a book have been published if the Simpson case had not become mired in dirt, unlike any other high-profile trial of our time?
Shapiro and Bailey went into the trial as longtime buddies; Bailey is godfather to one of Shapiro's sons, and Shapiro won an acquittal for Bailey in 1982 on a drunk driving charge. They came out of the trial implacable enemies. These high-priced mouthpieces didn't keep their hostility private either: Shapiro called Bailey "a snake," and Bailey called Shapiro "a sick little puppy."
They then became entangled in a federal court dispute in Florida over money from a drug dealer they had once defended. It ended with Bailey going to jail and blaming Shapiro, who testified, for his imprisonment.
Prosecutor Marcia Clark's messy divorce from her second husband and details about her first marriage were exposed in tacky detail along with stories about her hairdos and clothes, as if this had anything to do with the trial.
Clark and Darden got million-dollar contracts for books and appearances, and a bonus from District Attorney Gil Garcetti. (The bonuses and Garcetti were later denounced publicly by nearly everybody in the DA's office.) What would they have gotten if they had won the case! This just helped prove the trial was an aberration, since the people who should have been the biggest losers became financial winners.
Judge Lance Ito came to this trial with an untarnished reputation, but he could not handle the unprecedented publicity. He became so authoritarian that, after many of his knee-jerk rulings, I found myself yelling at the TV screen, "For God sakes, judge, who died and made you emperor?"
Ito is still getting bad press. It is a sad commentary that in May 1996 a newspaper item revealed that when Ito was invited to speak at graduation ceremonies for the University of Arizona College of Law, three dozen students, about 20 percent of the class, protested, charging that Ito was "just a California Superior Court judge" and was chosen simply because he was a celebrity. Come on, UA law students, a California Superior Court judge isn't good enough for you? Not if it's Ito, I guess.
Unfortunately, the Simpson trial turned into a zoo, and the judge was too green to control it. His one experience with a trial of national interest, the Charles Keating savings and loan fraud scandal, was no preparation for the Simpson case. Keating was an important and tragic case, but reporters weren't exactly breaking down doors trying to cover it. Unfortunately, Judge Ito—smart, witty, self-confident, an excellent lawyer—thought he knew all about the intricacies and pitfalls of high-profile trials—but he didn't.
If he got good advice, he certainly didn't listen to it, not when it came to issuing seats in the trial room (what an awful decision he made, and where were the veteran reporters to tell him it was awful?), not when it came to keeping order in the court (you don't permanently bar reporters from your fiefdom without asking questions or giving second chances), not when it came to agreeing to a pretrial television interview (the people around him should have threatened suicide and homicide before allowing him to even consider such a proposal), not when it came to threatening removal of the camera every time he got upset, not when it came to yelling at the lawyers (much as some of them deserved it for their snide, unprofessional conduct).
Ito was criticized as a star-struck judge who catered to celebrities and allowed them into his sanctum when ordinary reporters and others were not so privileged. But you have to remember that this judge was working with a mass of reporters so unfamiliar with courts and judges that they didn't realize that at big trials, veteran reporters, and veteran lawyers, and the judge can share a healthy friendship and a healthy respect; they can trust each other so much they can meet and drink and eat together throughout the trial, knowing that the after-hours get-togethers will never be publicized or even discussed. At every big trial I covered, my rooms became the press center where we got together for drinks, to relax, to plan dinners and parties. I don't know if this would have been possible at the Simpson trial; in fact, I know I could never have guaranteed, as I did at other trials, that no word of get-togethers with the judge or the lawyers would leak out.
At the Simpson trial, there was such an overblown attitude toward the judge that merely being admitted into his chambers created so much excitement one newspaper visitor had to write a non-story assuring the readers and the panting media that nothing of substance was discussed.
Bombarded during the trial by some of the most overwrought coverage in criminal trial history, exposed to bias, gossip, rumors, and plain dumbness from the mass of amateurs and on-the-job trainees who outnumbered the professional and objective press, the public now faces the loss of the one honest voice in the courtroom—the camera inside.
In what the Los Angeles Times described as "the rancorous aftermath" of the trial, the governor of California proposed barring all cameras; and some judges, recoiling from the excesses of the Simpson trial, refused to allow cameras inside their courtrooms.
Stringent regulations were proposed, including some that would have jeopardized the public's right to see and to understand what goes on in the courtroom. One proposal, for example, was that cameras would be allowed to film only what the jury hears. They would be forbidden to film any events in the courtoom that took place with the jury absent. What a mistake that would be! Some of a trial's most important occurrences—a motion for a mistrial, for example—happen with the jury out of the room. Why shouldn't the camera record all of a trial's highlights and happenings, with or without the jury, so long as the judge is on the bench and the trial is in process? The public is not the jury, nor is the public going to influence the jury. There is no reason why the public should not be informed of judicial rulings and legal arguments as they occur inside the courtroom, with the judge in charge.
The people watching a trial can learn how the justice system works if they are given the opportunity to see a complete trial, not selected portions. Every reporter who has covered a court beat or who has been at a high-profile trial for a long time gets to know the courthouse regulars, the seniors who spend hours every day in courtrooms following trials. Because they watch trials faithfully, these groupies learn the law much as court reporters on the beat learn it. They are marvelous sources of information about trials in progress and the personality of the judges and the lawyers. Without benefit of TV legal commentators or newspaper analysis, these regulars understand the complexities that arise, and so would the millions out there who would learn the law just by following complete trials on camera, as the regulars have done in person for many years.
The public was saturated with press coverage at the Simpson trial, some of it excellent, but there were times when the public was not served well. Take the day at the outset of the case when Cochran gave his opening statement and Simpson was permitted to show the jury the scars on his knees.
Seeing O.J. half-naked in his underdrawers in color photos and then getting a peek at his knee scars must have so bedazzled the press horde that nobody—not on TV, not on radio, not in the newspapers—bothered to warn the public that a defense admission of serious error at the end of that session had just put the entire trial in disarray.
Cochran's opening had been punctuated by objection after objection from the prosecution because he was violating the rules governing discovery, which require both sides to reveal in advance such important matters as the names of witnesses who were going to be called. Wasn't anybody listening?
No reporters that night, or even the next morning, explained high up in their stories that the trial could not possibly continue with business as usual when it resumed. Nor did anyone print in full on the day it occurred the remarkable dialogue between defense attorney Carl Douglas and prosecutor William Hodgman after Douglas admitted he was "embarrassed" over the defense "oversight" and declared: "I take full responsibility ... this is my blame and my blame alone."
Nor did they emphasize that Hodgman, protesting the violation as "a horrible breakdown" in the judicial system, was having great difficulty talking. Douglas may have fallen on his sword, Hodgman said, but the "people were seriously prejudiced" and he begged Ito, "Do not minimize this."
Maybe the press was unhinged by O.J.'s show-and-tell, but why did Judge Ito think that the problems created by the defense's admission was something you could cure overnight, even if they claimed the wrongdoing was inadvertent?
When Ito told the prosecutors to work on the problem after court and said he'd hear them at 9 A.M. the next morning and would call the jurors in at 10 A.M. I wrote in my notebook in red ink, "Is he nuts?" Did he really believe he could cure such damage in one hour?
Were Hodgman and I the only two people who were stunned by Ito's failure to understand how serious this problem was, that by saying he'd give an hour to it he was trivializing it? True, there was a lot going on before Douglas made his confession, with Cochran doing a masterful defense job trying to persuade the jurors that there was no way O.J. could have been the killer of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
When he told the jurors that a defense witness would tell them she saw four men running from the area of Nicole's condo around the time of the murders, there was no way the jurors could know that Cochran was talking about a witness whose identity had never been revealed to the prosecution—a blatant violation of court rules.
This witness, incidentally, had a rare talent. Just by looking at four guys as they sped past, she could tell that they might be undercover cops, Cochran said. If this lady could teach crooks how to spot undercover cops that quickly, she could make a fortune.
As it turned out, of course, the trial was interrupted for much more than an hour, the jurors weren't seen again for nearly a week, and when the trial resumed before them, Cochran finally finished his opening statement. Judge Ito allowed prosecutor Marcia Clark to briefly reopen her case because, Ito ruled, the defense had broken the law not inadvertently but "intentionally and to gain unfair advantage."
(When Douglas made his initial admission that the defense had violated the discovery rules, I was so amazed that I immediately called reporters, friends, and neighbors to say that in all my years of covering trials, I had never seen such an extraordinary development. I told them that the trial was in confusion, that when Hodgman spoke he apparently was having difficulty breathing, that Douglas's admission was so serious that the prosecution should demand the right to reopen. If I could figure this out, so should some of the jillions of reporters who were there).
Because of the initial lack of information from the huge press corps, bad things happened.
Since the news media did not dwell on the serious nature of the defense's law-breaking, nor on Hodgman's obvious anger and distress in open court, Cochran was able to tell reporters the next day that the defense errors were minor and that Hodgman, who had been rushed to an emergency room the night before, apparently had become upset not because of the "minor" defense violations but because of the damaging revelations Cochran had made during his opening statement. Yeah, right!
I heard not one reporter ask Cochran the big question: "If the prosecutor had violated the discovery rule in front of the jury, would you consider it minor? And if the prosecutor committed those violations, after you completed your opening statement, wouldn't you be screaming nationwide for a mistrial? And wouldn't you be claiming the prosecutors had destroyed O.J.'s right to a fair trial?"
The problem with reporters not doing their jobs properly in a trial so widely publicized is that you leave the entire country with the wrong impression. If you are unaware that a serious defense violation has been admitted, and if you didn't notice when it was happening that the prosecutor is so outraged he is having trouble speaking, then you are going to be misled, misdirected. You are going to believe the faulty thinking of some people that Hodgman was faking a heart attack. A newspaper columnist and the lady who runs the shoeshine stand at the Criminal Courts Building shared this "professional" reaction.
That was at the beginning of the trial. But at the end it was really was no better. When Judge Ito delayed the reading of the verdict for nineteen hours, not one reporter, not one lawyer, not one TV expert voiced outrage. They should have.
In every case I ever covered, lawyers and reporters were notified when a verdict was reached, and they were expected to get into the courtroom to hear the verdict within a certain time period, usually no more than two hours. If they weren't back within that time, they were locked out. We learned never ever to leave the courthouse when a jury was in deliberation.
Why did Simpson have to suffer the anxiety of awaiting the verdict for nineteen hours, when the wait should have been no more than two or three hours? Why did the jurors have to be kept sequestered for nineteen more hours? Why did the families of the victims have to be tortured by the long delay? Why was this cruel and unusual punishment not criticized by somebody in the media?
If the excuse was that security measures had to be taken, that is ridiculous. As soon as the jurors began deliberating, the police were on alert. And creating a nineteen-hour delay gave every crackpot who wanted to a chance to get down to the courthouse, along with crowds that could not have been there if the verdict had been read promptly.
This trial was not as volatile as Patty Hearst's, when Hearst Castle and other buildings were bombed by the underground; or Charlie Manson's, whose unstable followers were loose on the street protesting every day. Hearst's verdict came in on a Saturday, and the federal judge didn't kvetch about weekend overtime, as Ito did when talking about delaying a possible Saturday verdict. The Hearst judge did what he was supposed to do: he gave the press and the lawyers the two hours he had promised, the verdict was delivered, and the trial was over. The Manson judge did the same.
When Ito first announced that he would not reveal the verdict if it was brought in on a Saturday, I called the young producer of a TV show I had been on. I told him that Ito's proposal was awful and started to explain about the Hearst trial. The young producer was polite but uninterested, and I realized he had no conception of how cruel and unnecessary a delayed verdict can be.
The Simpson acquittal did not come in on a Saturday, but Ito delayed it anyway. If, as I have been told, this was done because one of the defense lawyers had to go out of town, then I fault Ito. He should have told the attorney that the defendant, the lawyers, the families, and the jurors were not be be kept waiting at a trial already too long, and if the lawyer wanted to go out of town, he would have to miss the verdict and let the many other defense attorneys stand with Simpson. But Ito didn't.
While O.J. was captivating the world, one TV commentator said to me, "Isn't this an incredible trial? The sex! The money! The drama! It really is a giant soap opera."
And I thought, what sex, what money, what drama? Cut out the glitz and the hype and the hysteria, and the O.J. case really wasn't much of a thriller. There was more sex at the Candy Mossler trial, more money at the Patty Hearst trial, and more drama at the Claus von Bulow trial. They weren't on camera worldwide and they weren't overrun by hordes of media, but millions of Daily News readers were as hooked by those trials as any of the Simpson viewers. Lots of readers told us that following the News stories was like following a big soap opera. And none of the readers I talked to ever called any of those cases "the trial of the century."
The prosecutors who lost the case and then became instant millionaires have been second-guessed and criticized ad nauseum. Their presentation of evidence was so disorganized it was difficult for even an unbiased observer to follow or be convinced by it. Marcia Clark was overwhelmed by her sudden fame; Chris Darden may be a good lawyer, but he is too slow for the high-speed exchanges that distinguish great trial attorneys. Instead of demolishing the opposition with verbal rapiers, with icy wit, Clark resorted to angry accusations and Darden became sullen.
As for the defense: compare the low key, elegant lawyering of Leo Branton in the Angela Davis murder case with the ham-handed use of the race card in the Simpson case, and you see the difference between a great trial and a Doo-Dah.
Actually, there is no comparison. Branton and his co-counsel, Howard Moore, Jr., both black, had a challenge so much greater than the Simpson team's that the acquittal they won seems miraculous.
Their client was not a beloved sports legend accused of murders where there were no eyewitnesses. She was a controversial, militant black scholar accused of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in a raid and gun battle at the Marin County Courthouse on August 7, 1970.
In that raid, a white judge who was taken hostage was killed, a white prosecutor was shot and paralyzed, a white woman hostage was shot. The black leader of the raid and two escaping black prisoners were killed. The picture of the judge being led from the courthouse with a sawed-off shotgun taped to his neck was sent worldwide.
Guns used in the melee were traced to Davis, who had bought them legally. She was not at the courthouse, but immediately after the murders she disappeared, was indicted as the raid's mastermind, was placed on the FBI's most-wanted list, and finally was captured two months after the bloody shootout. Her disappearance, said the prosecutors, was proof of her guilt. Besides all of these challenges for the defense, the white prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Albert Harris, succeeded in seating an all-white jury.
It was Leo Branton's closing, with his eloquent, softly spoken plea to the jurors to "think black, be black" so they could understand the woman they were judging, that most moved the jurors, they said later. Branton was emotional, but he never ranted or shouted. (There were no outbursts between defense and prosecution throughout the trial, and at the end, Judge Richard E. Arnason was thanked for his "evenhanded justice.") Branton begged the jurors to remember that Davis, even before the murders, had been called a "Commie bitch" and threatened with "extermination" in the hate mail she received during a dispute with the Board of Regents over her job at UCLA. He told them that after she learned her guns had been used, without her knowledge, she hid because she feared for her life. "You must realize that no black person would wonder why she fled," Branton said. "They would only wonder why she would allow herself to be caught." The jury deliberated for 13 hours, spread over three days, and acquitted the 28-year-old defendant.
|Foreword by Linda Deutsch||xi|
|1 The O.J. Simpson Trial: Flash and Trash||12|
|2 Bowties and Beats: Moonshine and the Law||24|
|3 On the Road||40|
|4 The Confidential Trial||53|
|5 Gag Orders and Other Pains in the Tush||69|
|6 The Colonel's Lady||86|
|7 The Joy of Writing||103|
|8 Oh Lawdy! How They Could Love!||121|
|9 In Nic's City Room||142|
|10 Going Crazy With Charlie||165|
|11 The Queen of the SLA||195|
|12 Jean and the Diet Doc||217|