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The Simpson Trial revisited: Jerrianne Hayslett on 'Anatomy of a Trial' (Q&A)

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On June 12th, 1994, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were murdered in Brentwood, California. Ms. Brown’s ex-husband, former NFL star and celebrity personality, O.J. Simpson, was arrested for the crimes and tried in a Los Angeles courtroom—an event that came to be known as the Trial of the Century. Though acquitted in the criminal proceedings, Simpson was found liable in a civil judgment and is currently imprisoned in Nevada on unrelated charges. Twenty years have passed, and yet public debate—not only regarding Simpson’s innocence or guilt but the influences of race, fame, and media (among other factors) on justice—continues …

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Jerrianne Hayslett.

Ms. Hayslett was the Los Angeles Superior Court’s media liaison and information officer during the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson—an experience that she recounts in Anatomy of a Trial: Public Loss, Lessons Learned from The People vs. O.J. Simpson (University of Missouri Press, $29.95). During her tenure with the Los Angeles court, she dealt with media issues and coordinated media logistics for numerous other high-profile cases, including the Menendez brothers, Heidi Fleiss, Rodney King beating, the O. J. Simpson civil trial and two cases involving Michael Jackson. In addition, Ms. Hayslett has been an international media-relations consultant, public speaker, teacher/trainer, and newspaper journalist.

Anatomy of a Trial was first published in-print in 2008, and has since been released in a digital edition; the book is the recipient of the California Justice Armand Arabian Law & Media Award and was also named an Honorable Mention Book by the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Upon its initial publication, Dominick Dunne (now deceased), author/journalist, victims advocate, and host of truTV’s “Power, Privilege, and Justice”, praised, “Mention O. J. Simpson and judges cringe. Anatomy of a Trial shows why. This book, like no other, flings the doors open to the court’s back halls and inner chambers to reveal the effect of the public’s obsession with the Simpson murder case, the all-consuming media coverage of it, and the impossible task that befell the trial judge. Hayslett, in this unflinching account, masterfully lays out how the witches’ brew that bubbled up from those toxic ingredients continues to this day to permeate the American consciousness. A riveting read!”

From the publisher:

The People vs. O. J. Simpson ranks indisputably as the trial of the century. It featured a double murder, a celebrity defendant, a perjuring witness, and a glove that didn’t fit. The trial became a media circus of outrageous proportions that led the judge to sequester the jury, eject disruptive reporters, and fine the lawyers thousands of dollars. Now an insider at The People vs. O. J. Simpson reveals the untold story of the most widely followed trial in American history and the indelible impact it has had on the judiciary, the media, and the public.

As the Los Angeles Superior Court’s media liaison, Jerrianne Hayslett had unprecedented access to the trial—and met with Judge Lance Ito daily—as she attempted, sometimes unsuccessfully, to mediate between the court and members of the media and to balance their interests. In Anatomy of a Trial, she takes readers behind the scenes to shed new light on people and proceedings and to show how the media and the trial participants changed the court-media landscape to the detriment of the public’s understanding of the judicial system.

For those who think they’ve already read all there is to know about the Simpson trial, this book is an eye-opener. Hayslett kept a detailed journal during the proceedings in which she recorded anecdotes and commentary. She also shares previously undisclosed information to expose some of the myths and stereotypes perpetuated by the trial, while affirming other stories that emerged during that time. By examining this trial after more than a decade, she shows how it has produced a bunker mentality in the judicial system, shaping media and public access to courts with lasting impact on such factors as cameras in the courtroom, jury selection, admonishments from the bench, and fair-trial/free-press tensions.

The first account of the trial written with Judge Ito’s cooperation, Anatomy of a Trial is a page-turning narrative and features photographs that capture both the drama of the courtroom and the excesses of the media. It also includes perspectives of legal and journalism authorities and offers a blueprint for how the courts and media can better meet their responsibilities to the public.

Even today, judges, lawyers, and journalists across the country say the Simpson trial changed everything. This book finally tells us why.

Now, Ms. Hayslett offers a unique retrospective on the Trial of the Century …

1) What inspired you to write ANATOMY OF A TRIAL – and how do you feel that the decade-plus timeframe between verdict and publication influenced, or enhanced, your perception of events?

I thought briefly about writing a book right after the verdict. The trial was without doubt the biggest and most prolonged media event in the country’s history. Given that I had not only been in the thick of it, but behind the scenes every day, I thought I had a story to tell. I even talked to a literary agent. But it came down to the realization that I had to have something to say beyond relating a string of anecdotes. Plus, everyone in the world who had anything to do with the trial, however tangentially—except the trial judge, Lance Ito— was already doing that. So I abandoned the idea and focused on my job, which included the Simpson civil trial, a few other high-profile cases and overseeing media relations of the largest trial court in the world.

I left the court in 2002 and began consulting with courts in this country and abroad, doing conference presentations and serving on faculty of the National Center for Courts and Media (NCCM) at the University of Nevada, Reno. At every turn, the Simpson trial and related issues, such as courtroom camera coverage, gag orders and jury sequestration, were agenda topics. After years of addressing the perpetuating and increasingly proliferating misperceptions and misinformation at these forums and in the mainstream media, a colleague suggested I write a book.

Any book attempting to assess the long-term impact of the trial and media coverage of it written too soon after the trial would have been from a narrow and speculative point of view. My shift from just Los Angeles to a national and international stage not only enabled me to benefit from the passage of time, it provided a broader context and included a multi-experience perspective. Also, the decade-plus that had elapsed since the event enabled people I interviewed for the book—which included many who were involved with it and others who were impacted by it, such as judges who presided over high-profile cases to come—to have a more mature view and fuller understanding of the implications of and repercussions from the trial.

All of that better positioned me to include recommendations and create a blueprint for courts and the media preparing for high-profile trials.

2) Yours is the first book to be written with the cooperation of Judge Lance Ito. What were his contributions to the project – and, in your informed opinion, how does his persona differ from that which was portrayed in the media?

When I told him I was doing the book and wanted to contact him if I had questions or needed confirmation about a legal point, an anecdote about him or a quote I was attributing to him, he agreed. He also gave me a searchable electronic copy of the trial transcript, which proved to be invaluable. I did not, however, give him the manuscript in advance of publication or at any time grant him editorial access or input. Nor did I make any promises or implications.

The person I knew as Lance Ito is pretty far removed from what has morphed into the star-struck incompetent buffoon that became his media-created persona.

I found him to be a thoughtful, dedicated, hard-working, pragmatic jurist who was as well-versed in the law as any judge I knew, if not more so. He, in fact, was selected by the court’s judicial leadership as the Simpson trial judge in large part because of his extensive knowledge and firm grasp of the law and his previous experience with cases of media interest. I was struck by his ability to converse knowledgably about any subject, his insatiable curiosity, a wicked wry wit, his love of a good prank and desire to help students understand the law and the legal system. In my experience, he was personable, approachable and accessible. Those qualities, unfortunately, ended up working against him in the caldron of clashing agendas and egos that boiled up in the Simpson trial.

3) Your role in the trial – L.A. Superior Court Media Liaison – was a unique one. Tell us about the perspective it allowed you – and also how you endeavored to balance behind-the-scenes anecdotes with decorum in the writing of your book …

Most court information officers, which is the common term for court-media liaison, have a unique role. They are court employees and must have their judges’ confidence and be entrusted with highly confidential information. At the same time, they must consort with what so often is viewed as the enemy—the dreaded and hated media.

As a former member of the media myself and in my daily dealings with them as the L.A. court information officer, I understood their problems and issues with the court, which primarily involved access. But it was paramount that the judges not see me as being sympathetic or partial to the media’s needs and demands. Many, if not most, saw me as and wanted me to be their great wall of protection from the media.

In writing this book, I tried to be honest, straightforward and as objective as I could. In doing so, though, I included flaws as I saw them and what is perceived by many to be “telling tales out of school,” so I could never have written this book while still employed by the court.

4) What should be the media’s role in the courtroom – and how did the Simpson trial pervert that? Also, what are your suggestions for rectifying such transgressions?

The news media, as I view it, serve or should serve as the public’s surrogate. It is their role to report to the public what people have a right to know. Court proceedings are the public’s business conducted by judges who are or should be accountable to the public. As such, people have the right to know how that business is being conducted. I believe people in this country have a right to see that business being conducted just as any member of the public who wishes can by sitting in a courtroom. Since time, distance and space constraints make that impossible, the media should have necessary access to do that for them. That means camera coverage.

Media coverage, however, does get perverted in high-profile cases because of superseding agendas, such as print media circulation and broadcast media ratings, career ambitions and egos and various other factors. That has been the case going back to the 1921-22 Fatty Arbuckle trials, and probably even earlier than that. The 1995 Simpson trial, however, topped them all, in both extent and duration of coverage, which lasted more than a year, from the first court proceeding in August 1994 to the verdict in October 1995.

Fallout included a dramatic decrease in media access, not just to Los Angeles courtrooms and case information, but to those in California, the entire country and in other countries, the extent of which I discuss at some length in my book. The most tangible was camera access. The Simpson trial led directly to more restrictive statewide measures and criteria for permitting courtroom camera coverage and resulted in camera requests that previously had been almost routinely granted to being almost universally denied. More than ten years after that trial, denials started to become less common.

5) This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Brown/Goldman murders. In retrospect, what do you believe that this tragedy exposed about society – and what are the lessons to be learned in moving forward?

Americans love a great soap opera, which is how the Simpson trial was presented and came to be viewed. Punditry blossomed from a rather obscure cottage industry to a booming mainstay of media coverage. The trial spawned the phenomenon of covering high-profile trials as though they are sporting events. Entertainment and ratings became the priority and remain so. Salaciousness has always been a mainstay for those in the news business. Informing the public, which was already woefully ill-informed about the Third Branch of government, seems to no longer be a goal, except for the most hard-core journalists, who are a dying breed in this country. While that trend was already in play before the Simpson trial, it most certainly served as a catalyst in moving in that direction as a far greater speed.

While many lessons are already obvious and known to the news media and to the courts, post-Simpson trials such as those of Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson and Casey Anthony evince that not everyone is on board.

I do hold out hope, though, and cite as an example in my book measures taken by both the court and the news media in the 2007 Steven Avery trial in Wisconsin. That case involved an especially gruesome and grisly crime and the unusual circumstance of Avery committing it after being freed from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Key to the success of that coverage was the court’s and the news media’s understanding that working cooperatively would benefit the public, and making use of technological advancements that allow less intrusive media access without compromising coverage.

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HBE wishes to thank Jerrianne Hayslett for her generosity of time and thought.

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