OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 13 1997 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       It's getting near the end. Outside, Santa Monica is getting buffeted by frighteningly strong winds. Frightening not just to Southern Californians, for whom light rain is dangerous weather: Before court begins, the TV crews are take shots of their own scaffolding and sky booths. Minutes later, the structures are blown over. OK, we got the "before" footage, now get me some "after." Inside, the lawyers are joking in the courtroom (outside the presence of the jurors, usually), and then, moments later, they are acting as tired of each other as Bulls and Knicks in Game Five. The week begins with photo "expert" Robert Groden standing in the wings, as his lifelong nemesis in the world of JFK assassinationologists, David Liftin, is fingered by the defense.
       Attorney Dan Leonard, growing more openly combative as the trial nears the finish line, opens Monday's session with a finely mixed metaphor: "If your gag order is to have any teeth, your honor, the plaintiffs can't use a shill to attack our witness." According to Leonard, Liftin--a thin, almost Dickensian character with thinning white hair--is consulting with the plaintiffs, feeding them dirt on Groden, going on television shows to attack Groden's testimony and credentials, and sitting in a seat reserved for plaintiffs' people on this very day. Ed Medvene argues that Liftin isn't being paid by the families, that plaintiffs' attorneys have no control over him. Presumably, Liftin is just a public-spirited enemy of Groden donating his time. Given the emotional state of the "assassination community," he may well be. But Fujisaki asks Liftin to stand, and then: "Sir, you're excluded. Step out."
       Leonard's small success is balanced by a larger failure: He asks the judge to prevent any mention of any new photograph of the defendant wearing Bruno Magli shoes at any point in the trial, but Fujisaki agrees with Dan Petrocelli--who says, "I just got (the new photos) this weekend"-- that the pictures are classic impeachment material for a witness who's been debunking an old one. David Liftin may be the lucky one.
       The new photo or photos do not materialize immediately. They hover overhead like the Mothership at a P-Funk concert, waiting to land until the proper dramatic moment has arrived. First, Gelblum confronts each of Groden's challenges to the Harry Scull image. The analyst had made measurements of the microscopic difference in the lengths of two frames on Harry Scull's roll of photos by obtaining an 8X magnification of the frames. How, Peter Gelblum asks, had he produced the blowups? On a copy machine at Kinko's. "Is it true," the pear-shaped, bearded Gelblum asks, "that you don't know whether the photocopy machine accurately reflects the sizes of the two images?"
       "I have no way of knowing."
       Groden had testified that the frame of O.J. in The Shoes, Frame 1-1, was the only image on the contact sheet that had a color bias toward magenta, all the others tilting slightly toward "cyan," a blue shade. "Did you know," Gelblum asks, "that of all the other frames on the contact sheet, other than this one, there's a green field evident, and in this one Mr. Simpson is walking on a red-and-white end zone?"
       "Of course, yes."
       "But you don't think that could account for the different tint?"
       "No."
       There then follows a brief abstruse dialogue on different kinds of reflections, but things get back to basics very quickly:
       "You said that the pinkish tint was so pronounced you thought Mr. Simpson was wearing a pink shirt in this picture?"
       "I said I had to find out whether it was pink or not because it does appear so pink, especially in the shadow areas."
       "You said you thought he was wearing a pink shirt rather than a white?"
       "I said I had to find out--it appears to me that, possibly, he was wearing a pink shirt."
       "In this picture?"
       "Yes."
       "I'll show this to the jury. Your eyes tell you that that is a pink shirt?"
       "Can I see it again? Yeah. Look in the shadow areas, you can definitely see that. See."
       "I'm not talking about shadows. I'm talking about a pink shirt. You said it was a pink shirt, right?"
       "That's not what I said."
       Gelblum then reads Groden his deposition testimony. "The two prints in question show a reflective value. Frame 1-1 shows a magenta-and-pinkish tint to a point of where, just inspect[ing] this photograph, I thought it was a pink shirt instead of a white shirt."
       "I stand corrected. What I meant was--"
       "Thank you."
       "I had to find out whether it was."
       "I didn't ask you what you meant. I just asked you what you said."
       Looking specifically at the right shoe in the photo, Gelblum asks, in his slightly raspy tenor, whether the red reflection on the sole, which Groden had found suspicious, couldn't be the result of reflection? Groden doesn't think so.
       Doesn't he think it's possible? He doesn't think it's what we're seeing.
       "We've already discussed the fact that this is the only frame with a red background, correct?"
       "I don't believe we have."
       "You have problems with your memory, sir?"
       "Yes."
       "Are they quite severe sometimes?"
       "It happens."
       It gets rougher. Groden had testified he found it anomalous that there was no moisture on Simpson's shoes, based on his assumption that it had rained that day in Buffalo, where the pictures were taken. "Who told you that it had been raining?"
       "I don't recall."
       "When did they tell you that?"
       "I don't recall that, either."
       "[Defense attorney] Mr. Leonard, before you testified, told you to make a point of saying that there was no evidence of moisture, right?"
       "That's correct."
       "This is different from all your other points, because this is not a photographic anomaly, correct?"
       "That's correct."
       "You wouldn't expect moisture if the field wasn't wet?"
       "That's correct."
       Gelblum's voice begins getting louder and louder with each question. "Nobody else's shoes on the contact sheet are wet, are they?"
       "No."
       "Nobody else's shoes on the contact sheet are splashing?"
       "No."
       "Why would you expect Mr. Simpson's shoes to be wet?"
       "I was told it had been wet; I would expect to see moisture if it had been raining."
       "Did you talk to a single person that was at the game?"
       "No."
       "You talk to Mr. Simpson?"
       "No."
       "So obviously, if the field was not wet, you wouldn't expect to see moisture, would you?"
       "No."
       Now Gelblum turns to the larger issue: What does Groden contend happened to the original picture? Did someone put new shoes on an existing photograph of O.J. Simpson at Rich Stadium?
       "Is there a 1 percent possibility?"
       "It's very large. I can't quantify it."
       "More than 50 percent?"
       "Much."
       "More than 60 percent?"
       "Yes."
       "More than 65 percent?"
       "You're playing games, aren't you?"
       The attorney keeps ratcheting up the numbers; Groden hangs with him until ...
       "80 percent?"
       There is a pause. Then: "Would you give me the question one more time, exactly as you phrased it?"
       "If somebody went and took a picture of Mr. Simpson--" that had been taken on Sept. 26, 1993, in that location, the end zone of Rich Stadium in Buffalo, and put on new pants and new shoes?
       "I'm saying it's an extremely high possibility. I would say, to stop this, I would say greater than a 90 percent probability either the pants and/or the shoes were--or the shoes alone were changed. If indeed that was a legitimate picture of Mr. Simpson in the first place."
       "Well, let's--we'll find out what your opinion is. Was it a legitimate picture of Mr. Simpson in the first place? Bear in mind, sir, Mr. Simpson has admitted that the top part of the picture is in fact a picture of him wearing those clothes at that game."
       "I have no way of knowing whether there was a legitimate picture like this prior to this or not."
       "What do you mean?"
       "If this picture is a composite, as I believe it to be, the whole thing could have been manufactured. I don't know that--there could have been a whole separate picture of Mr. Simpson that I'm not even aware of. I don't know."
       "Taken where, on Mars?"
       The sarcasm ratchets up as well. Gelblum pursues this point, because there is videotape of Simpson at the game in question. Given that, he begins a question, and the fact that "you are being passed off as a photo expert"--objection, overruled--"in your expert opinion, was this a photograph of Mr. Simpson in the end zone that day, and somebody went and put new pants on him and had new shoes put on him?"
       "Based on my analysis, I would say yes."
       Having painstakingly built a corner, Gelblum proceeds to hand Groden a brush and a can of paint. Groden had previously testified to some JFK work in which a photo of Dealey Plaza purported to show a bullet hole in a road sign. The analyst had used comparisons with other photos of the same sign to prove that the bullet hole was not really there. "So," Gelblum says, "if there are other photographs taken with a different camera, photographs of Mr. Simpson at the same stadium, the same game, on the same day, wearing the same shirt, the same pants, the same jacket, the same belt, and the same shoes, wouldn't that compel you to conclude that your testimony that these shoes had been put on was wrong?"
       "No."
       And now the parade of photos begins. First blowups, then contact sheets, 30 images in all, promotional photos of O.J. posing with various--and I'm using words loosely here--Buffalo notables. Each image is presented to Groden, and each time he's asked whether the photo in question would compel him to change his opinion. Each time Groden answers that it would not. The photos are passed to the jurors, who examine them, some holding them up to the light. This takes a while. O.J., who makes the morning sessions all week but skips the afternoons until his own testimony, takes notes on a yellow pad. Dan Leonard studies large photocopies of the new photos. (Kinko's again? Not known.) Petrocelli and Gelblum confer, their backs to the jurors, smiles on their faces. Bob Baker sits with his left hand at his chin, then leans back, crossing his arms. Phil Baker plays with the keys of his laptop. Groden swivels slowly, slowly on his chair. The judge watches the jurors. And the jurors look at the pictures.
       Gelblum gives Groden one more chance to buy himself some wiggle room, and the witness isn't buying. "They don't change my opinion. No."
       Dan Leonard has a big job. On the shoulders of his witness Robert Groden sits the burden of disproving the most powerful piece of evidence against Simpson, the "shoe photo." Groden has just watched as 30 more photos, purporting to show the same footwear on the defendant's feet, have passed under his nose. Combined with his less-than-university-level credentials, the morning's events would seem to have rendered Groden's attack on the original photo as harmless as a fusillade from a cap pistol. How do you fix Groden? How about sympathy?
       "Mr. Groden, would you explain to this jury why it was that you left the military?"
       "A sergeant in my company got drunk and beat me up. To sweep the incident under the rug, I was discharged."
       "Why did he beat you up?"
       "The sergeant was anti-Semitic and I'm Jewish."
       "Mr. Groden, how did you happen to have a stroke?"
       "Two years ago, I was walking in a parking lot, I slipped on a patch of ice, and as a result I had a series of strokes."
       "Do you think that has any effect on your ability to analyze this photograph and explain your analysis to this jury?"
       "Not at all."
       "Why did you drop out of high school?"
       "We didn't have very much money and my going to school and remaining there was a strain on my mother. My mother and father had just separated and it was my sister, myself, and my mother, and it was a real financial drain on her."
       Of course, in the next sentence, Groden says he entered the military when he dropped out. So, assuming he was going to a public high school, the drain he ended by dropping out was caused by his consumption of meals at home. Sorry; I'm quibbling and you're crying.
       Leonard does bring some arrows in his quiver that have actual tips. Groden, when working at the House Assassination Committee, took the same proficiency test administered to the committee's panel of credentialed photo experts. He was, he testifies, the only one tested who scored 100 percent. Although Groden sold a story about the JFK autopsy, complete with photos, to the Globe, the supermarket tabloid was not his first choice.
       "Did you attempt to interest other media?"
       "Yes."
       "Were those attempts unsuccessful?"
       "Yes."
       Unasked: Did any of them propose to pay, as the Globe did, $50,000 for a story that included grisly autopsy pictures?
       Leonard elicits, through Groden, that at this moment we have no evidence of the authenticity of the new photos, although an affidavit from the photographer was submitted to the judge. "You have no idea," Leonard prompts, "who created these photographs, when they were taken, whether or not they were sold to a tabloid?"
       "None at all."
       And then, the one question everyone in the room wants to yell at Groden: Why don't these new photos impel you to change your mind about the putative fraudulence of the Harry Scull image? "Because the anomalies are still there. Other photographs don't change the fact that these problems that I identified are still there. A hundred photos won't change that."
       Finally, as has become usual in this defense, a whiff of the sinister:
       "Now, assuming that you're making a copy, composite negative, and you want to cover your tracks, what would you do with the camera once you created the copy negative?"
       "You get rid of it."
       "What did Scull say happened to the camera in this case in his deposition, sir?"
       "He claimed it was stolen."
       Groden finishes redirect with a ringing affirmation of his own earlier testimony: Was there, Leonard asks, anything discussed on cross-examination that would make him change his opinion about the Harry Scull photo? "None at all," Groden says evenly. "No."
       But Gelblum has more ammo, quite possibly slipped through the courtroom door from Groden's nemesis in the hallway, Liftin. "Did your strokes also affect your vision, sir?"
       "Yes."
       "Did they cause some blurriness in your right eye?"
       "Yes, due to a slightly detached retina."
       You can hear the final argument now--their photo analyst has blurry vision, ladies and gentlemen! But, having dealt with his eyes, Gelblum now wants Groden's nose, for purposes of rubbing it in the new photos one more time.
       "If you see 100, or 30, other photographs, and Mr. Simpson is wearing the same exact outfit in those pictures, doesn't that have some bearing on the conclusions you draw from your observations?"
       "The anomalies are still there."
       "I'm asking about the conclusions you draw. Doesn't that cause you to pause, and think, maybe there's some other reason for what I observed?"
       "Maybe if I were able to authenticate the other photographs it probably would."
       Gelblum runs into an objection trying to assert through a question that one of the new photos had been published in November 1993, half a year before the murders. So, he frames it as an assumption:
       "If, in fact, there was a photograph published before the murders that showed Mr. Simpson wearing the same shoes, wouldn't that affect your conclusions?"
       "If you could authenticate the photograph and prove that they're Bruno Magli shoes, it would affect the conclusions, but--"
       "No further questions."
       Groden has just delivered a preview of the plaintiffs' rebuttal case, coming next week to a courtroom near me.
       The defense spends the rest of the week throwing sand in the gears of the juggernaut now heading for Simpson. The jury is invited to think about gloves, about blood drops, about O.J.'s relationship with Nicole--about anything but shoes.
       Rolf Rokar's deposition is read into evidence. Rokar is the police photographer who shot the picture of Mark Fuhrman pointing at the Bundy glove, and the defense wants his recollection of the time the photo was shot--middle of the night--to contradict Fuhrman, who has testified it was taken after daybreak. But Fuhrman's testimony isn't coming in, and Rokar concedes that he's on enough different drugs to give Courtney Love a headache--10 3medications, taken daily, and, in some cases, hourly. They do, he admits, fuzz up his recollections.
       Then LAPD officer Richard Aston takes the stand. He is Daniel Gonzalez's partner, and these two guys driving around in a squad car together is a series just waiting for Stephen Bochco. Gonzalez--the exuberant, handsome kid who likes to do things his own way; Aston--3a reserved, tall British expatriate with a quizzical expression who does things by the book. He didn't, he tells Bob Baker, see his partner "play with the dog" (Kato the Akita), didn't seem him with the dog at all. He heard some of the conversation the four detectives had before Fuhrman went over the wall, but nothing very specific--"I don't recall, I remember some concern about what may have happened on the inside."
       "You thought the blood spot above the door handle on the Bronco was real important, didn't you?" Baker asks, his sarcasm in full flower.
       "I made no assessment of its significance," Aston deadpans. Despite the judge's repeated rulings that it's a dead issue, they're still litigating the warrantless search of the property, hoping the jurors can read between the lines.
       Again, as in the case of Gonzalez, Baker is on firmer ground delineating differences between this officer's recollection of events that morning--specifically, that he, his partner and all four detectives went to look at the Bronco together--and a conflicting account contained in Detective Ron Phillips' notes of an interview with the officer. "In your view," Baker says, "Detective Phillips is wrong?"
       "I believe there were some things he omitted."
       "You don't know why?"
       "That's correct."
       The defense clearly believes one or more of the cops got into the Bronco that morning, and Baker gets Aston on the record denying that any of the six of them even touched the vehicle. Later, he confronts the officer with an impound report that includes a checkmark indicating the vehicle contained a battery and alternator. "You'd agree that the only way to determine if a battery or an alternator is in the vehicle is to pop the hood, wouldn't you?"
       "I don't know if you can crawl under the car and maybe see it that way."
       "Sir, have you ever done that? A Bronco's a pretty large vehicle, isn't it? The battery sits up there above the engine, so you can get to it when you want to add wa-wa."
       "I'm not sure what wa-wa is. I'm not super-familiar with the engine design of the Ford Bronco. I would assume you're correct."
       But on cross, Ed Medvene shows Aston another impound report, the one he and his partner actually signed. "What does it show about a battery and alternator, sir?"
       "It shows 'unknown.' "
       Sand in, sand out.
       Otis Marlow, a former cop now working as a private eye for the plaintiffs, is up next. His name has been mentioned in defense questions so frequently it's acquired the aura of a behind-the-scenes Machiavelli. In person, he looks more like Cheech's older, straighter brother, with the requisite cop mustache. It may not be deliberate strategy, and the jury may not draw the same conclusion, but the newsies all assume that, because Phil (Baby) Baker is handling the questioning, this witness has receded in importance.
       Marlow has a goofy little habit. He starts out way too many answers with "I don't want to mislead you." This hits the panic meter just below a senator's "I'm going to be totally honest with you." Still, even giving half-credit for a suspicious verbal tick, there's not much here. Marlow worked the clue detail on the Simpson case, following up the hundreds of real and imagined clues phoned into the cop shop in the days following the crime. He also was involved in searching the sewers of Brentwood--not the French film, the actual sewers--searching in vain for bloody clothes, for a weapon, for anything besides the usual.
       Oddly, a defense that has made a living by attacking Los Angeles' cops for being incompetent and lazy now attacks Marlow for being, if anything, over-enthusiastic. Phil Baker keeps pointing out in his questions that Marlow took on tasks, like interviewing the neighbors, that he wasn't ordered to do. Hmmm ... that's odd. Also, although Marlow is seen in a photo in O.J.'s bedroom in a late-June re-search holding a notebook, he testifies that he didn't take notes during most of his interviews or his searches. "I always have a notebook with me," Marlow says, reaching into his inside coat pocket to demonstrate. "I have one now."
       Gelblum points out that Marlow didn't volunteer for everything; somebody asked him to help out on the sewer detail.
       Paul Tippin--and yes, they're coming in rapid order now-- is an Orange County District Attorney's investigator who spent 26 years in the LAPD, including a stint in the now-notorious Robbery-Homicide Detail, and whose short gray hair is counterpointed by exactly the same cop-stache worn by his predecessor on the stand. Tippin is the officer who took Kato Kaelin's statement the afternoon following the murders. Dan Leonard uses him to introduce--how come this isn't double, or triple, hearsay?--Kato's recollection that Nicole and her friends used cocaine. Leonard also gets on the record, in the same way, Kato's list of Nicole's friends, in which friend No. One is Cora Fischman. That would have been handy had Fischman ended up testifying for the defense, as their witness list predicted. But she and Al Cowlings are scrubbed after Fujisaki rules that Kato himself can't be questioned about Nicole's drug proclivities.
       Tippin also testifies that another officer, Sergeant Stephen Merrin, got a phone call at 10:30 the night of the crime. The female caller asked Merrin if there had been any double homicides on the West Side that night, and indicated she worked for Channel 4 news, even dropping the name of the station's one-time news director, Pete Noyes. Merrin himself reiterates the story on Wednesday, adding the detail that the woman's actual words were "Are you sitting on two bodies?" Tippin recalls that a call to Channel 4 produced no one who had made the inquiry. He did not, he allows, follow up further.
       No one suggests how you'd follow up an anonymous call asking vaguely about a generic crime.

Harry Shearer is a writer, actor, and director who has met both Kato Kaelin and Heidi Fleiss.