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Trial Gave Lessons On Justice System

Thu., Oct. 5, 1995

The trial of the century is over, but its legal legacy may last well into the next millennium.

The O.J. Simpson case is already influencing how courts, crime labs and police departments nationwide go about their business, and legal experts predict more changes ahead.

While the Simpson spectacle strayed far from the normal course of American justice, its glare brought problems in the judicial system into sharp relief: racial bias, police misconduct and contaminated evidence.

It also inspired broad debate on legal matters usually argued only by attorneys. Must juries be unanimous to reach verdicts? Should cameras be barred from courtrooms?

Ultimately, history’s most-watched trial reflected, and to no small degree shaped, a wiser-but-sadder outlook among Americans toward their criminal justice system.

“Everything in the Simpson case is also in our court system,” said Paul Rothstein, who teaches a course on the trial at Georgetown University Law School. “I actually believe an occasional show trial is necessary to show people what’s happening in the criminal justice system.”

So what’s happening, post Simpson? For one thing, more dirty gloves at the San Francisco medical examiner’s office.

Dr. Boyd Stephens, San Francisco’s chief medical examiner, watched with alarm as Simpson’s defense team exposed sloppy evidence-handling in the Los Angeles Police Department crime lab.

Stephens, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said similar scrutiny is occurring in many crime labs and coroner’s offices.

Some may have lessons forced on them. At least one Simpson juror said questions about the prosecution’s scientific evidence were key to Simpson’s acquittal. Even before the verdict, defense attorneys across the country were adopting strategies used by Simpson’s legal team, Rothstein said.

Dr. Michael Graham, chief medical exam iner in St. Louis, recalls testifying last month about drawing blood from the body of a shooting victim. It was a routine case - until the defense attorney started grilling him in the manner of Barry Scheck, Simpson’s expert on DNA testing.

What kind of needle did he use? the attorney asked. How much blood did he draw? “It was much more detailed than we usually see in this part of the country,” Graham said.


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