Trial Rewind: Catching up with Judge Lance Ito

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  • In Session correspondent Beth Karas sits down with famed judge from the O.J. Simpson trial
Trial Rewind: Catching up with Judge Lance Ito

Editor's note: In Session correspondent Beth Karas is a former prosecutor and has known Judge Lance Ito for eight years. She caught up with the famous judge during a recent vacation to Los Angeles, California.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, finds himself sidelined from the bench after steep budget cuts closed his courtroom.

County budget cuts that went into effect last July closed 55 courtrooms, including Ito’s. There are still hundreds of courtrooms operating in the county’s 48 courthouses but, in a county the size of Los Angeles -- with nearly 3 million cases filed each year -- it’s hard to imagine how the remaining courts can absorb the work. More budget cuts to Los Angeles courts are expected early next year.

Even though he is no longer presiding over criminal trials, Ito stays busy overseeing and administering the appointment of experts in death penalty cases in Los Angeles County. That duty would have been obsolete had California voters decided to abolish the death penalty November 6. Proposition 34 would have replaced the death penalty with life without parole, but it didn’t pass, so the ultimate criminal sentence is still an option in California and Ito has a role to play in that process.

Ito gained national attention in 1995, when O.J. Simpson’s double murder trial was dubbed the “trial of the century” and became a national obsession for most of that year. Judge Ito presided over an army of lawyers who slugged it out in the courtroom, turning “DNA” into a household term and starting a trend for apropos quips following Johnnie Cochran’s “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The country watched every minute of it unfold on television.

The California judiciary showed little enthusiasm for televised trials in the years following Simpson’s acquittal. It took years before any of Ito’s colleagues would seriously entertain the media’s request to televise another high-profile trial. But in 2007, just down the hall from Ito’s courtroom, Judge Larry Fidler allowed Court TV to televise music producer Phil Spector’s first murder trial. And last year, across the hall from Fidler’s courtroom, Judge Michael Pastor permitted the world to watch the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray.

I had just joined Court TV when Simpson was arrested and had a lot to learn about television, so I wasn’t sent to Los Angeles. Rather, I stayed in New York and watched from afar, like the rest of America. All I knew about Ito was what we all saw on TV. Judge Ito refereed from the bench, peering over books, papers, computer and TV monitors, and a large collection of hourglasses crammed into a corner of the desk. Those hourglasses became a talking point for pundits filling air time.

I met Ito in 2004, while I was covering Scott Peterson’s trial in Redwood City, California, and was invited to attend a judicial swearing-in ceremony for one of the prosecutors in Simpson’s murder trial. The late Woody Clarke had been on loan to the Los Angeles D.A. during the Simpson trial because of his expertise in DNA evidence, and I met Ito at the ceremony to watch Clarke become a state court judge. Ito was approachable, conversational, and likeable.

I’ve stayed in touch with him over the past eight years. In fact, I was in Los Angeles earlier this month, escaping New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. While I was there, I checked in with him. He’s well, perhaps his beard is a little grayer than the last time I saw him, but he’s full of energy and doesn’t appear to be ready to retire any time soon.

Ito’s legacy is inextricably intertwined with Simpson. Last year, he graciously donated an hourglass to CNN’s News Museum and another to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., memorializing that legacy. He explained that his fascination with hourglasses started when he first saw one in the movie “The Wizard of Oz. “ As a judge, he found an hourglass to be “a useful device to encourage lawyers to adhere to time limits during trial.”

Good advice.

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