November 07, 1994 12:00 PM

JACK FORD WELL REMEMBERS HIS first death-penalty case. The time was 1983, and Ford, a former prosecutor, was now defending a 21-year-old man charged with first-degree murder. “I remember walking up the courthouse steps,” he recalls, “and thinking, ‘Geez, it’s this guy’s life. Tomorrow morning the jury’s going to decide whether he’s going to live or die-and I’m the one who has to convince them not to take his life.’ ”

Ford, 44, who opposes the death penalty because of the possibility of executing the wrong person, saved the man—and several more over the years—from the electric chair. But trying death-penalty cases changed the attorney’s perspective. “With those, compared to everything else you do,” he says, “the consequences are profoundly more significant. I think that hastened my decision to move on.”

Moving on for Ford has meant quitting legal practice in favor of explaining the law on TV. After three years as an anchor on cable’s Court TV, he was signed by NBC this summer to serve as its legal analyst and sometime anchor for the O.J. Simpson trial. “I met O.J. one time at an all-American dinner,” says Ford, a former football player at Yale. “So it’s almost as if a friend’s there, charged with murder. It seems to be what a lot of the nation is feeling. It’s not like you’re looking at Charlie Man-son or Jeffrey Dahmer.”

Like any good lawyer with 19 years of trial experience, Ford is fast on his feet and doesn’t trip over the furniture. Says Katie Couric, his NBC colleague and a friend: “It’s a real skill to explain the law in layperson’s terms, and Jack is really good at that. And so very relaxed at the same time.” Explains Ford: “I don’t use scripts on TV any more than I used notes in the courtroom for opening or closing statements. Even if I was giving a 3-hour summation, I felt more comfortable without them. That’s why TV’s so easy for me.”

Getting to the bar wasn’t so easy for Ford. In fact, it took an appearance on Jeopardy! to pay his way through law school. He grew up in Point Pleasant, N.J., and during his high school years he made all-Ocean County quarterback and the National Honor Society to boot. That earned him a ticket to Yale, where he majored in history and was a star defensive back. Graduating in 1972, he married Dorothy Kelly, a secondary school French teacher (the couple now live in Spring Lake, N.J., with their two children, daughter Ashley, 12, and son Colin, 8), and started at Fordham Law School. Money was tight, and tuition was dear. “Then I remembered a friend at Yale who had gone on Jeopardy! and won $1,000,” says Ford. “I thought maybe I could do it.” He could, and in two days he won $5,000, which paid for tuition and an overdue honeymoon in France. (In a subsequent Jeopardy! gig two years later, he won a trip to London.)

In 1983, WCBS-TV in New York City interviewed Ford about a death-penalty case, then hired him part-time as a legal expert. He switched to Court TV in 1991 and began working part-time for NBC in 1993. After Simpson was indicted this past summer, NBC lured Ford away from Court TV with a full-time, multiyear contract. Will the Simpson trial be recorded as the high-water mark of his career? Alas, no, he concludes. “My obituary will read, ‘Jack Ford, former Jeopardy! contestant.’ ”


CYNTHIA WANG in Point Pleasant

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