Curbs Urged on Witnesses for Hire Simpson Case Spurs California Lawmakers to Urge Ban on Peddling Trial Testimony for Cash

Article excerpt

SHOULD witnesses in headline-grabbing trials be prevented from selling their stories to the media?

The practice has become commonplace in an age of "checkbook journalism," when some media outlets are willing to pay money - sometimes sensational amounts - for potentially tantalizing tales.

Now an effort is under way in California to curb such practices.

This week, lawmakers will take up unusual - and controversial - legislation designed to prohibit those who testify from peddling their stories before they get to court.

It is one of a jury box-full of measures on domestic violence awaiting state lawmakers as they return from a summer recess.

Amid the glare over the O.J. Simpson case, bills are being drafted on everything from police training to pretrial publicity.

What ultimately is adopted will be important. California sits on the cusp of the swirling national debate over domestic violence. It will help set the agenda for the rest of the country.

"It seems inevitable that there will be a lot of activity on this," says Larry Lynch, co-publisher of Political Pulse, a Sacramento newsletter that follows activities of the state legislature.

Behind the move to prevent witnesses from being paid for interviews is the belief that it could damage a defendant's right to a fair trial: By accepting money in advance for their statements, witnesses threaten to undermine the credibility of their testimony.

Thus, state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. (D) of San Francisco is proposing to make it a misdemeanor for those who testify in a criminal trial to take money for their stories before or during the court proceeding. Violators could be fined and/or jailed. Testimony for rent

Some witnesses in the Simpson case have sold interviews to the press, which is what prompted Speaker Brown to act. He says such payments "taint the system."

Brown's isn't the only measure that addresses the issue. State Sen. Quentin Kopp (I) of San Francisco proposes even more sweeping restrictions, and he would apply them to civil as well as criminal trials. Limits would be placed on jurors and lawyers, too.

But some legal scholars express doubts about the constitutionality of such moves on grounds that they would raise questions of freedom of speech and press. …