|By Jerianne Hayslett University of Missouri Press, 252 pages, $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Barbara Kate Repa
Do not read this book if what draws you to all things related to O. J. Simpson’s first criminal trial is the usual intrigues: the fallen football hero, testimony from the bumbling and beautiful, prosecutor Marcia Clark’s ever-changing hairstyle. For example, Kato Kaelin, Simpson houseguest-turned-hostile-witness, gets only a passing mention. Ditto the low-speed Bronco chase, that too-small bloody glove, even O. J. himself.
Instead, Anatomy of a Trial: Public Loss, Lessons Learned from The People vs. O.J. Simpson begins with the conclusion that Simpson was a train wreck of a case, from jury selection through to its lasting legacy. And the author, Jerrianne Hayslett, attempts to explain why from her vantage point as a media liaison for the Los Angeles Superior Court.
As she tells it, the bogeyman behind this tale was presiding Judge Lance Ito: He was too compartmentalized, too informal, too friendly, too human, and too cautious to do his job right. By the author’s count, Ito allowed media issues to take up a third of his time during the trial, although she disputes the common claim that the lure of fame caused Ito to undermine his sense of judicial propriety.
Hayslett also points an accusing finger at the media. Throughout the trial, she reports, journalists jockeyed for space in the courtroom, angering the deputies; they talked among themselves, driving distracted jurors to write notes of complaint about their conduct. And she describes her own shock the day then–NBC Today Show host Katie Couric appeared in Ito’s chambers, chummily munching candy from the jar on his desk while begging for the promise of an interview.
Now here’s the puzzling thing: As the court’s media liaison, Hayslett was, by her own description, responsible for “handling press issues and logistics.” It would seem that a person in that post would have taken it upon herself to say a few things, such as: “Sit where you belong” and “Be quiet” and “Hey, Katie, you really should have phoned first.” But the author remains oddly disassociated, at one point even bemoaning that the trial “launched a cottage industry of books about the trial, the defendant, the crimes, the victims, and the jurors.” Present book excluded?
Finally, Hayslett blames television, which, she laments, “could have informed and educated, could have brought people unable to physically attend the trial into the courtroom,” but instead “used the trial for entertainment and unabashed commercial promotion.”
Well, it was entertainment. The nine-month trial, misbranded by many as the longest in California’s history, probably only felt that way—with 150 witnesses testifying, countless hearings to hash out evidentiary issues, and timeouts to deal with jurors’ bouts with the flu, infighting, and brewing book deals.
Still, the trial never ceased to rivet. On the October 1995 morning the not-guilty verdicts in the Simpson case were delivered, AC Nielson confirmed that virtually every TV in the Los Angeles area, and 91 percent nationwide, was tuned to hear and see them.
Anatomy of a Trial plumbs that nostalgia. Hayslett draws from reflections recorded in her diary throughout the trial, with the most momentous moments marked by haikus, such as this one:
Press reports are wrong.
Ito feels numbed and disturbed,
What is the outcome?
Poetry attempts aside, though, the book is well written, with nice twists of phrases and observations uniquely gleaned from watching the trial from the inside out. And there’s fun in these pages. The author dishes—mostly about the divalike behavior and short skirts of the female reporters and lawyers, although she also gets catty about comic Jackie Mason, hired as a BBC commentator for the trial, noting his “almost wrinkle-free kind of skin” and too-tight hair weave.
Occasionally, Hayslett’s own roots get the best of her. For example, she spends too much time describing the cloisters of courtroom administration and which reporter circumvented what unwritten chain of command. It’s not that interesting—unless, perhaps, you’re the person whose command was jumped. And the book has a scattered and preachy conclusion about courts and media relations and the public’s right to know. Or something.
Most profoundly, readers will be reminded what a difference a decade or so makes. Death has taken a chunk out of Simpson’s defense Dream Team, with Johnnie Cochran and Robert Kardashian now gone. Lance Ito, once hailed as a judicial rising star, now sits in an L.A. criminal courtroom with no nameplate on the door; his name lives on as a frequent crossword puzzle clue, but he shuns the limelight. And Simpson sits locked up in Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada for 9 to 33 years for those strange and less-gripping crimes involving his old football trophies.
Nevertheless, the mystique of the Simpson case endures, blamed for everything on the First Amendment parade of horribles—including sealed records, prior restraints, closed proceedings, and gag orders on lawyers, litigants, and witnesses. And, of course, for the relative merits of allowing cameras in the courtroom. Approved in California since 1981, cameras in court became suspect after Simpson—singled out, according to Hayslett, as “the biggest contributor to the derailment of that trial and the negative public perception of it and its participants.”
The day the Simpson verdicts were delivered, then-Governor Pete Wilson wrote a letter to then–Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, urging a statewide ban of electronic media coverage in criminal trials. In response, the California Judicial Council investigated and held a series of public hearings, ultimately deciding to give judges complete discretion on the issue.
The pundits couldn’t stop themselves from drawing parallels with the Simpson case a couple years ago when Judge Larry Paul Fidler opted to allow cameras in court during Phil Spector’s first trial for murder. But Spector, an unphotogenic record producer best known for the Wall of Sound production technique he popularized in the 1960s, was no Simpson—on a number of levels. And his trial was no Simpson.
Barbara Kate Repa, a contributing writer to California Lawyer, watched every televised moment of The People vs. Orenthal James Simpson.