In one of the strangest turns yet in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, a clear majority of jurors staged a virtual insurrection Friday, triggered by Judge Lance Ito's decision Thursday to replace three of the deputy sheriffs assigned to protect them.
Testimony came to a halt as Ito moved quickly to keep the jury - and the trial itself - together. For the first half of the day he met individually with the jurors and alternates, at least 13 of whom wore black, some from top to bottom, as if in mourning. Conversely, three other jurors, including one who demanded Thursday to be released, dressed conspicuously in color.The schism over the deputies and assertions that they had sown racial discord among jurors bodes badly for the panel's ability to ever reach a unanimous verdict, let alone coexist for the next several months. And at a time when Ito is trying desperately to speed things along - in part to ease the lot of sequestration - it brought testimony to a grinding halt.
By the time court reached its customary noontime adjournment Friday, the judge had spoken to seven of the jurors, and he will devote Monday to speaking with the others. Testimony is not expected to resume before Tuesday. In the meantime, Ito ordered all participants to say nothing about the latest turn of events.
Two weeks ago, shortly after the judge excused her from the jury, Jeanette Harris, a 38-year-old black woman, accused the deputies of favoring white jurors. That charge, among others, led Ito to question all remaining jurors in the last week. He had also planned to question several of the deputies.
But before that could happen, a 25-year-old black flight attendant on the panel asked that she be excused. "I can't take it anymore," she told Ito on Thursday in an apparent reference to her own unhappiness with the deputies. On the same day, the judge reassigned three deputies, even though he had not found any misconduct.
That prompted Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block to accuse the judge of moving precipitously to mollify what he called "a seemingly hysterical, emotionally distraught juror." As of Friday the woman remained on the jury; in a greenish-gray dress, she was one of three conspicuously colorful exceptions to their largely black-clad colleagues.
The judge's move prompted Friday's protest, when a majority of the jurors refused to leave their hotel until Ito talked with them. Told that the judge would do so only in court, at least 13 of the panelists arrived dressed partly or totally in black.
In one of the most extraordinary spectacles of the trial, they wound their way into and out of court, looking like a funeral procession.
For normally deferential jurors - particularly a group that many had predicted would prove incapable of consensus - to express themselves so publicly was a remarkable display of solidarity, one that crossed racial and sexual lines. Seven of the 13 were black; four were white.
The white woman who has been accused by Harris of kicking her and stepping on a black man wore a long black gown. The man she purportedly kicked wore a black vest. A Hispanic man and a white female alternate wore a white shirt and white blouse, respectively, under their black suits.
The bright colors were worn by three black jurors, including the 25-year-old flight attendant, while two other black jurors wore both dark clothes and splashes of color.
The bizarre demonstration once more raised the specter of a mistrial. That, in turn, brought the latest round of assurances that a mis-trial is most unlikely.