Hed — Out of His League

As courtroom blockbusters go, the contrasts couldn’t have been more striking. The trial of Timothy McVeigh was a study in decorum and efficiency. The trial of O.J. Simpson was a study in buffoonery and delays.

But why? Ever since McVeigh was convicted last week for the Oklahoma City bombings the deadliest act of terrorism in U.S. history legal pundits all over the TV dial have been answering the question this way:

– The Simpson trial was televised, prompting attorneys on both sides to play up to the camera (as well as millions of viewers tuning in each day). The McVeigh trial was not, keeping the attorneys focused on their respective cases (and not their hairstyles).

– The Simpson trial had a defendant who was rich, handsome and famous qualities lacking in a loner like McVeigh.

– The Simpson trial was dominated by the race issue, while the McVeigh trial was dominated by one overriding consideration: Did the guy do it?

There is, of course, one other difference: The Simpson trial had Lance Ito.

It was always apparent that the L.A. Superior Court judge was not up to the demands of the high-profile Simpson case. But it’s cases like McVeigh’s skillfully handled by U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch that point up Ito’s deficiencies to a mind-boggling extent.

Why, for example, didn’t he place a gag order on attorneys and all other participants in the case (as was later done in the Simpson civil trial)? The absence of such an order turned what was already a widely followed case into a media feeding frenzy. It also necessitated a months-long jury sequestering, which has been widely criticized. (In the McVeigh trial, there was a gag order and sequestering only during deliberations.)

Also, why did Ito turn over so much of the trial to the attorneys? By contrast, control has been clearly evident in Matsch’s courtroom; no smooth-talking attorney was about to take over.

Finally, why was Ito unable to hold his own ego in check? Perhaps more so than the attorneys, he not only played up to the cameras, he took his celebrity to his own chambers, where he met with movie stars and other prominent court-watchers. Didn’t he realize that this was inappropriate behavior for a jurist?

The Simpson case was an embarrassment not only for Ito and the legal community, but, in a general sense, for all of Los Angeles. Once again, L.A. was viewed in the extreme: A place where justice is a joke and where race overrides everything.

Ito’s defenders insist that he has an exemplary record. They also suggest that he shouldn’t be judged squarely on a case that, by all accounts, was one in a million.

Perhaps but Ito’s performance during the Simpson trial raises questions that go beyond the parameters of a high-profile trial. They involve simple judgment. If he could have been proven so wrong so often during the Simpson trial, what assurance is there that similar lapses won’t occur in the everyday governance of justice?

We would hope that Judge Ito reflects on the realities as well as the perceptions of his courtroom performance. In so doing, he would be doing us all a favor by seriously considering life beyond the bench.

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