Legal wrangling and a sideshow-like atmosphere dog the Simpson murder case
Outside, the circus performers were getting a little damp. As journalists took cover under the porticos of the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building, a steady rain pelted the hordes of would-be pedlars, tourists and local winos wanting to get in on the media frenzy. “Free O. J.,” declared one pin, on sale for two dollars. “God died for your sins,” admonished a sodden banner carried by an itinerant preacher. Near the door, dozens of people lined up to play the lottery— for the mere six public seats in the ninth-floor courtroom. But when the trial of 0. J. Simpson, charged with the brutal murders of his exwife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, began at 9 a.m. on Jan. 23, justice proved itself blind to the demands of good entertainment. Bogged down in legal wrangling over what evidence and witnesses could be cited in opening arguments, Day 1 ended without the jury being called into the courtroom. At one point, Judge Lance Ito inadvertently summed up the thoughts of the millions of North Americans watching the proceedings on television. “There’s nothin’ magic about today,” he said.
Not with a bang, but with a lot of whimpering—that is the way the Trial of the Century began. The sideshows proved more rivetting than the main event: LA police Det. Mark Fuhrman, who is expected to be a key player in the defence’s contention that Simpson was railroaded by racist police, allegedly assaulted a news photographer in Spokane, Wash. And Simpson’s controversial book, I Want to Tell You, hit U.S. and Canadian bookstores. But even amid the arcane legal debates in the L.A courthouse, the bare bones of the prosecution and defence strategies began to emerge. So did an inescapable conclusion: the
most-hyped and most-watched trial in American history is going to take a long, long time.
When opening statements finally began on Tuesday, the jury—nine women and three men, eight of them black, two white and two of mixed race—heard the prosecution outline its case against Simpson. Assistant district attorney Christopher Darden, the sole black member of the prosecution team in a case with strong racial undercurrents, depicted Simpson as a wife-beater and abuser who obsessively controlled Nicole during their troubled sevenyear marriage—and afterward. Simpson, he said, took a baseball bat to the windshield of Nicole’s Mercedes-Benz in 1985; struck her savagely during an argument on Jan. 1, 1989; stalked her after their 1992 breakup; spied on her and a boyfriend in April, 1992, while the couple made love on the couch of her Bundy Drive condominium. “He killed [Nicole] for a reason about as old as mankind itself: he killed her out of jealousy,” Darden said. And Ron Goldman simply “got in the way.”
So much for motive. Opportunity and means were left to deputy district attorney Marcia Clark. Punctuating her remarks with gory photos of the crime scene—outside Nicole’s condominium—Clark described a “trail of blood” pointing to Simpson’s guilt. DNA analysis showed that bloodstains in his Ford Bronco matched Goldman’s blood, Simpson’s blood and Nicole Brown Simpson’s blood, she said. Droplets found near bloody footprints on the path to the condominium matched Simpson’s. Socks found in Simpson’s bedroom were stained with blood consistent with both the defendant and with his ex-wife. And blood on a glove found behind his Brentwood mansion was consistent with a mixture of Simpson’s blood and that of the victims.
“When one [test] after another after another after another comes back to the same person,” Clark said, “then you realize the test is accurate.”
Not according to Simpson’s high-priced defenders—the so-called Dream Team featuring marquee lawyers Johnnie Cochran Jr., Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey. In his opening statement, Cochran said he plans to call a host of DNA experts to question the accuracy of the prosecution’s tests. Simpson’s defence will highlight as well what Cochran called “the lack of integrity of the prosecution’s evidence.” Collection of evidence, Cochran claimed, was mishandled from the beginning. But perhaps most compelling was Cochran’s contention that forensic evidence will actually exonerate his client. Blood taken from beneath Nicole Brown Simpson’s fingernails, he said, was type-B—none of Simpson, his ex-wife or Goldman have type-B blood. And, Cochran contended, blood found on her thigh matched neither Simpson nor the murder victims.
Accusing the district attorney’s office of committing “a rush to judgment,” Cochran cited several witnesses who he said would provide Simpson with an alibi. A maid who worked next door to Simpson’s Brentwood home, he said, saw the Bronco parked on the street at 10:15 p.m. last June 12—when, according to the prosecution, Simpson was committing the murders.
Another woman, Mary Anne Gerghas, walked by Nicole’s condo at 10:45 p.m. and saw four men—some with knit caps on like one that police found at the murder scene— rush into an unmarked car and leave.
‘Who’s to say,” asked Cochran, “whether the four men there were not following Ronald Goldman?”
Speaking in mellifluous tones, Cochran went on to portray Simpson as a loving family man. Far from being an abuser perpetuating a cycle of violence,
Simpson maintained “a circle of benevolence,” Cochran said. As well, he suggested that Simpson was physically incapable of committing such a violent crime.
Cochran showed photographs of his client, clad only in blue bikini briefs, to demonstrate the ravages of football on the 47-year-old ex-running back’s body.
And then, Cochran called Simpson to the jury box. Smiling sheepishly, Simpson pulled up the left leg of his trousers to reveal the scars on his knee— the product of several surgeries in the late 1970s. As the jurors craned their necks to get a better look, Ito told them: “You in the back row can stand up.” Several did.
Cochran also hinted at another line of defence that can be summed up in a single name: Faye Resnick. Resnick, a friend of Nicole’s, published a tell-all book last summer called Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted that baldly stated her belief in 0. J.’s guilt. As deputy district attorney William Hodgman glared at him, Cochran referred in vague terms to Resnick’s history of cocaine abuse, fuelling speculation that defence lawyers will attempt to link the murders to the world of drug-dealing.
The prosecution launched a series of objections to Cochran’s statement, particularly his reference to evidence and a list of witnesses that the defence had not previously disclosed. Before Cochran could finish his remarks on Thursday, the prosecution asked for a 30-day delay to
examine what they said was new defence evidence. They also accused the defence team of not playing fair. “It’s a trial by ambush,” said Clark. At week’s end, Ito had yet to decide on the prosecution’s request for a delay—and on how to punish the defence for breaching discovery rules.
With the trial on hold, the sideshows took over the spotlight. Among them was the saga of Mark Fuhrman. During his opening statement, Cochran accused the prosecution of “trying to hide” the 43-year-old L.A. detective, who was one of the lead investigators in the case. The defence claims that Fuhrman, motivated by racism, planted evidence—including the notorious bloody glove. Last week, news photographer Dan McComb said that Fuhrman assaulted him at an airport in Spokane, Wash. Worse still, McComb took Fuhrman’s photo—hand extended in front of his face, apparently about to strike the photographer. The detective, it turned out, had stopped over in Spokane while returning from a house-hunting trip in northern Idaho. And tabloid TV shows were quick to remark that northern Idaho has recently gained a reputation for being a hotbed of the racist right.
And then, in what must be one of the strangest twists in judicial history,
Simpson himself spoke out— but not in court. I Want to Tell You, a book and audio cassette by Simpson and freelance writer Lawrence Schiller, went on the stands. “How could anybody say I killed this woman?” Simpson writes. “Don’t they understand that I’d jump in front of a bullet for Nicole?” The neophyte author makes another dramatic assertion, stating flatly what Cochran had only suggested. “I know in my heart,” Simpson writes, “that the answer to the deaths of Nicole and Mr. Goldman lies somewhere in the world Faye Resnick inhabited.” The best-seller-to-be is being billed as Simpson’s response to the hundreds of thousands of letters he has received while in prison. Among them is óne from Betty Chappell, a married mother of four from Aurora, just north of Toronto. Her letter, reproduced in the book, reads in part: “I cry for you in your despair, I cry for you in your loss of your wife, I cry for you in your crucifixion.” Chappell, 43, told a reporter last week: “I’ve walked the path of suicide, and I just wanted to help a man who was suffering greatly.”
The sensational book will no doubt help maintain the O. J. hype over the coming weeks. And in the TV ratings game, the trial has fared admirably so far, with all three major U.S. networks reporting higher-than-expected audiences for their afternoon coverage—a time slot usually saturated with soap operas. Tina Barry, a Los Angeles substitute teacher and mother of two, says that she is “obsessed” with the Simpson case. “If I am not in the area of a television, I have the radio going constantly or my Walkman,” she says. But the stalls in the trial— along with defence tactics—have taken a toll even on Barry. “I am so tired of people whom I honestly believe should be convicted of their crimes getting off,” she says. “Watching it can make me feel frustrated.” With most of the players conceding that just the prosecution’s case will take another two months, such frustration is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Amid the gallows humor surrounding the case, Simpsonwatchers wondered whether this would be the trial of the next century.
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