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Simpson Judge Moves From Trial of the Century to Trials of Obscurity

November 18, 1996

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In Department 127 on the 15th floor of the Criminal Courts Building, the case is the People vs. Marko Espinoza. The charge is second-degree robbery.

``Mr. Espinoza,″ the judge asks, ``how do you plead?″

On the bench is Lance A. Ito, derisively dubbed ``Judge Ego″ during the Trial of the Century, which catapulted his honor into judicial celebritydom.

Yet here it is, little more than a year after O.J. Simpson’s acquittal in the killings of his ex-wife and her friend, and life appears excruciatingly normal, if not downright boring, in the courtroom where Ito now hears felony criminal cases of the garden variety.

Wednesday’s judicial blue-plate special: robbery plea bargains.

Staring out from the same rimless eyeglasses, sporting the same immaculately groomed beard, Ito heard ``no contest″ from defendant after defendant. He delivered suspended sentences and three years’ probation to each one.

Ito took special care with a Spanish-speaking man who had no legs and arrived in court handcuffed to a wheelchair. The man had stabbed a drunk, would-be robber and was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. He could have argued self-defense. But the defendant wanted to plead no contest.

Before sentencing, however, Ito tried through an interpreter to explain the American justice system to make sure the man understood his rights.

``Have you ever seen a jury trial on television?″ Ito asked.

Not a single person even grinned in the nearly empty courtroom.

Inside Dept. 127, it’s as if the Simpson criminal trial never happened.

And there is no indication that 16 miles away, in another courtroom before another judge, a civil jury is hearing a wrongful death suit brought against Simpson by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Which is exactly the way Ito wants it after spending 372 days, many of them internationally televised, presiding in a ninth-floor courtroom where thousands filed through a metal detector to participate in the spectacle known as Simpson I.

``He’s a wonderful judge,″ said public defender Brenda Fischer, who appears before him frequently. ``He won’t let anyone talk about (either) Simpson trial in his courtroom. And we wouldn’t do it.″

Since the acquittal in October 1995, Ito has given one interview _ to a college television station. He has written no books, and has announced no plans to. The judge, after being vilified by Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden and mocked by Jay Leno, is quite happy to toil in obscurity.

Make that relative obscurity.

There is no judge’s name plate on the courtroom door because people keep stealing it as a souvenir. Interview requests keep pouring in.

On Wednesday, three alternate jurors from the courtroom next door asked permission to observe Ito on the bench. It was granted.

``It’s just like watching TV,″ enthused Hector Hernandez during a break.

One panelist who reported to Ito’s courtroom last week for jury selection burst out laughing when she saw who took the bench.

``I couldn’t believe it,″ said another prospective juror, Gloria Woods. ``If I had tonsils, he probably could have seen them.′

Ito’s courtroom contains other familiar faces.

There is sheriff’s Deputy Guy Magnera, who ended up on CNN and the front pages of newspapers just for doing his job _ which for the last six years has been protecting Ito’s courtroom.

There is court reporter Janet Moxham, punching away on her dictation machine, displaying that same thousand-yard stare while recording every word.

And there is Ito’s trademark collection of hourglasses on his bench, to which Ito summoned a reporter Wednesday at the end of the session.

``See, it’s just another boring, mundane day in Dept. 127,″ he said. ``I’m not giving any on-the-record interviews,″ he politely added.

For how long?

``Probably for the rest of my life,″ Ito replied. ``Been there, done that. Had enough.″

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