OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 7 1997 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       The defense pauses midweek in its parade of experts to present another Los Angeles cop. Officer Daniel Gonzalez is a four-year man on the force, clean-shaven, handsome in a "don't you think I'm kinda handsome?" way. It gets tiresome listening to all the police officers trained in the LAPD Way of Speaking, a style of presentation that owes its laconic essence to the late Jack Webb. Webb's Dragnet radio and television shows made the department famous and admired, and his cops spoke not a single spare syllable. Officer Gonzalez doesn't talk that talk; he speaks like a normal human being, as long as you stretch "normal" to include persons with an extended period of adolescence: He peppers his testimony with "you know" and "jeez" and "gosh." It's refreshing, at first.
       For one thing, he's eager to put on the gloves and spar with Bob Baker. The attorney likes to frame questions about what a witness may have seen by using "visualize" as a $10 word for "see." All the other witnesses have bought into the conceit and just answered when they did or didn't see something, but Gonzalez smells a rat, and refuses to acknowledge that he "visualized" anything. The officer clearly feels he has inoculated himself against the possibility that Baker will spring a trap about hallucinations.
       Gonzalez had arrived at the Rockingham scene at about 5:20 a.m., basically drawing the assignment to guard the Bronco. Since he found no evidence and interviewed no suspects (and took possession of no blood samples), you could be excused for thinking he'd have little of value to tell this jury. But Bob Baker wants to focus the jurors' attention on Mark Fuhrman, and, from his point of view, the more cops he can ask questions that contain the words "Mark Fuhrman," the better. So once again we tiptoe around the edges of "probable cause," as Gonzalez is questioned about overhearing the conversation about going over the wall, about the tiny blood drop on the Bronco found by Fuhrman--and about Detective Ron Phillips' report of a debriefing he conducted with Gonzalez.
       "In terms of this interview that you gave Ron Phillips, that was an interview that you gave Ron Phillips after it came out that additional blood was discovered in the Bronco on August 26, 1994; isn't that true, sir?"
       "See, where I have a problem with this--"
       "Look, I'm not asking you about your problem; I'm asking you one specific question; can you answer it? That interview was given after you knew that the LAPD was being accused of planting blood in the Bronco, and additional blood was found on August 26, 1994. True or untrue?"
       "Gosh, I can't--I can't answer that 'true' or 'untrue.' You're misstating, kind of, what happened. Let me back up. You want me to answer?
       "I'd be--"
       "Let me answer the question." Slowly, we're seeing, even visualizing, a policeman turning into Kato Kaelin before our very eyes. "This copy right here, I don't remember when that was taken. I've never--never seen that document before in my life. That's the first time I have seen it. I don't know when the interview occurred with Ron Phillips. I don't remember having an interview with--with me and him taking notes, or he didn't tape-record or anything, as far as I know. I can't tell you when that interview occurred. I couldn't tell you if it was before or after any accusations were ever made."
       After the attorney invites the officer to read Phillips' report to himself, he gets Gonzalez to quantify the number of mistakes it contains: "approximately one ... two ... three ... four errors." Then Baker goes to work. Did Gonzalez "play" with the Akita, as described in Phillips' notes of their conversation?
       No, not "play." "If he said I said that, he's wrong. He just misunderstood." Did the officer notice the dog's paws were "soaked in possible blood," as per Phillips? "This is a document about an interview with me. This is what he said I said. If you want to go over it, no big deal."
       Baker cannot resist the setup. "I want to."
       And now his plan looks more layered: Kato the Cop, who brings no factual material about the crime to the courtroom, has been called as a witness to--at best--sloppy police procedure, a witness to the way things are done at the LAPD.
       "By the way, is there any code to cover up for other police officers? Is there any code of ethics like that, that you guys have?"
       "I know what you mean. You want to know--"
       "Yeah, I really do want to know. Is there or is there not a code to cover up for each other?"
       "You get promoted for burning each other."
       "Is there a code you adhere to for covering up?"
       "I answered the question."
       "Have you been promoted?"
       "Well, no. I've--what my--"
       "Thank you."
       Gonzalez, true to his lack of training, presses on, incredulous that Baker doesn't get it. "You have to work Internal Affairs before you can even become a captain. That should explain something to you."
       "I'm getting a lot of things explained to me."
       Gonzalez gets away with mistakes like this one because he lures Baker into so many sassy attempts to get the last word that the attorney ends up looking like a sitcom dad straining for the final tatters of authority over his teen-age son. But his luck won't last forever.
       "Now. You then indicated, sir, in your written statement, that you were able to visualize blood in the Bronco, correct?"
       "Once again, I saw blood in the Bronco. I did not visualize nothing. I saw."
       "Well, tell us what blood you saw in the Bronco on the morning of June 13, 1994."
       "Right now, from my independent recollection, I specifically remember the bloody thumb print or fingerprint above the door handle. And I remember two large drops on the center console."
       And as Baker zooms in on those two drops, Officer Gonzalez convinces himself that he's on Crossfire with the attorney, and that he's winning.
       "Tell us where the two big drops were. You don't see them in that photo, do you?"
       "No, I do not."
       "Point out on that, if you can--take the pointer and point out, show us, where these two big drops were?"
       "Well, here's the center console and this--the top, this--that's where they're going to have to be, somewhere around this area."
       "Well, I thought you just told us, sir, maybe I'm mistaken, but I thought you just told us that you had a specific recollection of these two big drops?"
       "That is true."
       "Well, I take it if you have a specific recollection of these two big drops, you have a specific recollection in your mind's eye, as you sit here now on the witness stand, of the location of those drops, not from one end to the other end of the console?"
       "Well, you're only talking about what, 7 inches there, 8 inches, I mean I can't--I couldn't diagram for you and tell you exactly where they are at. You understand--do you understand what I'm trying to tell you?"
       "A Ford Bronco is a large sport-utility vehicle, right?"
       "Yes, sir."
       "And the center console in a Ford Bronco is bigger, for example, than the center console in almost every other car, isn't it?"
       "Well, every other car that's smaller than a Bronco, sure."
       "It's wider--it's about a foot wide, isn't it?"
       "I would argue that, and I'd possibly win."
       "I doubt it."
       "I'd lay some money on that."
       "How much?"
       Yes, esteemed reader, you are correct; at this point both the witness and his questioner should be slapped. But this is a civilized country, so they just keep going.
       "Those drops you described as 'large' in your statement that you gave to Ron Phillips, correct?"
       "Correct."
       "Now, you don't describe them as 'large' in your handwritten statement, do you?"
       "I might have used 'big.' I don't know what I used."
       "Let me show you."
       "OK."
       And Baker shows Gonzalez his handwritten notes. "Did you use any descriptive phrase whatsoever in describing these purported blood drops?"
       "No, I did not."
       "Didn't say 'big,' didn't say 'small,' didn't say 'two,' either?"
       "If it makes you feel better about--"
       "I'm not interested in whether you think I feel better."
       "OK."
       "Now, you didn't describe any number, either, did you?"
       "No, I did not."
       Baker's point, that Gonzalez's recollections grew more detailed with the passage of time, is made, and Ed Medvene's brief cross seems designed less to rehabilitate the witness than to trivialize him.
       "You had told us, as I remember, that--about the dog, and you said you don't remember using the word 'play.' Do you have any memory of telling him, Detective Phillips, anything you might have done with the dog?"
       "I never moved the dog."
       "Do you remember telling him you touched the dog or petted the dog, that he could have interpreted as played with the dog?"
       "When you say possibly, the way I told him, I was looking. The dog--something was wrong with the dog. At the time I didn't know what the heck was wrong with the dog. I own a dog, I know when a dog looks distressed. I'm not a dog psychologist, don't get me wrong. Something was wrong with this dog."
       "So in discussing your concern about the dog, might you have told him that you touched or petted the dog?"
       "That's the only thing I can think of. I know the word 'play' never--I think of 'play' as throwing a ball, having a dog chase it. That's nowhere near what I was doing with the dog."
       Nothing so confirms the defense strategy, of stalling until late Friday when O.J. will testify, as the time spent on this witness. His entire appearance, though entertaining, screams "filler." That's why Baker, on redirect, goes right back to the theatrics.
       "This is not a game. And quit playing. We're not playing."
       "You're playing with me."
       "Oh, no."
       "You've been playing with me since we started this whole thing."
       "You can argue all you want, sir."
       No, he can't, and yes, it is a game. On the final play, Medvene attempts to elicit a fact that Gonzalez has neglected to mention--that he didn't write anything in his report about Fuhrman finding the glove at Rockingham (a subject Baker has just been raking him over the coals about) because the officer never saw the glove, merely heard about it. But Gonzalez chooses not to use his seat cushion as a flotation device.
       "Were you trying to hide from anybody the fact that Detective Fuhrman first saw a glove at Rockingham?"
       "No, no."
       "Is there any reason why, other than [that] it might have been of no moment at the time to put it in your report, why you didn't put it in your report but you later told Detective Phillips?"
       "It's irrelevant, actually. There's even more little stupid things that happened that's not in the report."
       "Stupid things," Baker repeats from the other side of the courtroom, allowed to add his ironic postscript to Officer Gonzalez's finale. Where's the no-nonsense judge when we need him?
       But, as so often in this case, comic-opera is followed immediately by high drama. Much more than the fragmented assaults on police misbehavior that can only be hinted at in this trial, the defense must make its stand on the destruction of the photograph showing O.J. wearing those "ugly-ass shoes" he swore in deposition he'd never owned. A picture of Simpson in the "murder shoes" is much closer than the criminal prosecution ever got to tying the defendant to any of the physical evidence. It's not statistical DNA numbers that can be argued eight ways to Thursday--it's shoes on the man's feet just like the ones that left bloody prints at the crime scene: rare, expensive, size 12 Lorenzo-style Bruno Maglis. So the photo taken by Harry Scull during a Buffalo Bills pregame has to be revealed, as Bob Baker promised during opening statement, to be a complete and utter forgery.
       And normally that would require the services of an expert witness. The Simpson case, those of us who obsess on it keep insisting, brings with it issues of celebrity, money, justice, as well as race--Larger Themes in turn-of-the-century America. Now it forces us to confront our belief in experts. Of course, the hired guns have been shooting it out all along (and the week ends not with O.J., who is down in Orange County celebrating his custody victory, but with Dr. Fredric Rieders once again arguing with an FBI expert over whether there's a suspicious amount of EDTA in the bloody socks). But no witness challenges--almost satirizes--our concept of expertness like Robert Groden, called to the stand by Tom Lambert.
       Before the jury has even been allowed to hear him, the plaintiffs have forced the judge to decide whether Groden's credentials qualify him to be an expert witness. Groden, 51, bearded, with a patch of white in his short dark gray hair, a gray suit, rimless glasses, looks authoritative enough. And if sounding sure of yourself is all it takes, he's in. But what, exactly, does he do?
       He's a "writer," he says. What he writes are books about the Kennedy assassination, a subject he says he's made his "life's work." Groden's name is best known to assassophiles for his stint as a staff photographic consultant to the House Assassinations Committee, the late-'70s panel that tried without much success to put the JFK and Martin Luther King murders behind us, in those four most futile words in politics, once and for all. He testifies that he's been paid three times in his life to analyze photographs, twice by the National Enquirer, a task for which he prepared by working in a film special-effects lab and a slide duplication house. He is a high-school dropout, he left the Army after one year because of sinus problems, and--as a side effect of a stroke he suffered--he has experienced some memory problems. During this same week, a federal judge has excluded from breast-implant liability suits a wide range of researchers who would testify about the connection between the implants and various ailments, excluded them on the premise that the courts are no place for "junk science." But, after due consideration of Robert Groden's credentials, Judge Fujisaki rules that he may testify as an expert, and that his qualifications can be challenged on cross-examination.
       He does, and they are.
       Groden testifies with great specificity about how, if you wanted to, you would go about doctoring a photograph. He discusses the different processes involved, both in normal photographic faking and in the newer area of digitization. Then, on to the photo in question:
       "Did you examine the original negative?"
       "I examined what purports to be the original negative."
       "Did you come to any conclusion with regard to the authenticity of this photograph?"
       "My conclusion is that there is a high likelihood of forgery."
       "Now, tell us first in general terms what you base that opinion on."
       "On initial observation, noticing problems, discrepancy between what appears actually on the negative itself and the surrounding area, comparisons of that negative to the others on the roll, and the other roll, measurements, positioning, color balance and endless--I can't say endless--a number of problems with it."
       Groden presents, and narrates, a series of enlargements of the contact sheet that contains, as photo No. 1, the picture in question. He says if one were going to fake a photo, it would be either the first or last on the roll, so as to minimize comparison with neighboring frames. And he lists the 10 discrepancies that support his conclusions--including a microscopic difference in the length of the photo in question as compared with the other frames on the contact sheet, although, unlike most experts, he doesn't buttress that opinion with any kind of measuring device on the enlargement. Maybe the difference is really there, maybe it's like the old Psych 1A experiment, with the two equal horizontal lines that are made to seem unequal by what surrounds them. Nonetheless, judged solely on his presentation rather than his credentials, Groden makes at least a plausible case.
       After he's finished, journalists crowd the hallway outside the courtroom to get Larry Schiller's spin. Schiller, newly installed on Good Morning America as trial correspondent, does have photographic chops, having been a shooter for Life and Newsweek for a couple of decades. While the judge and attorneys prepare for a hearing outside the jury's presence, O.J. walks over to a reporter sitting behind me and chats amiably with her about the guy who co-wrote his prison book and the book based largely on Robert Kardashian's recent doubts: "Look at Larry out there--he's in his element, talking about photography and all." Simpson shoots me some eye contact every once in a while, but I'm busy digging a tunnel to China.
       A day off, due to a juror's personal reason, allows the anticipation to build: The jury will hear what we've already heard, in the matter of Groden's tenuous claim to expertise, and the plaintiffs, defending a key piece of physical evidence in their case, will cut for the witness a new anal orifice or two. The event doesn't quite live up to the buildup, partly because the plaintiffs agree to suspend Groden's questioning so that Bob Blasier, facing back surgery over the break, can desiccate the room with his questioning of Dr. Rieders. But Peter Gelblum--are the plaintiffs signaling their disdain for Groden by handing him to their third-string questioner?--starts out in highly surgical mode.
       "You're not the first person the defense hired to examine this photograph, are you?"
       "I'm not aware of that."
       "Have you ever spoken to a gentleman named Pat Clark?"
       "No."
       A trailer for Schwarzenegger's next movie couldn't be more blatant: We will see Pat Clark on rebuttal.
       "Before you took this assignment, you knew the defendant and his lawyers were trying to prove this picture was a fake?"
       "Yes."
       "You knew you wouldn't be asked to testify unless you were prepared to say it was a fake?"
       "I would assume I would not have been called if I'd have not found that."
       Later questioning elicits the fact that Groden is getting $2,000 a day for testifying.
       Groden disputes Gelblum's question that he has never published anything in the field of questioned-photograph analysis, then has to agree that's what he testified in his deposition. Professional organizations he's a member of? None. Awards for analyzing questioned photos? None. First time in court testifying as an expert? Yes. It gets worse.
       "As recently as a few months ago, weren't you spending some of your time out on the street in Dealey Plaza, hawking videotapes?"
       "I was selling my videotapes, yes."
       "Out on the street in Dallas?"
       "Yes."
       "Can you tell the jury what the JFK Presidential Limo Tour is, sir?"
       "The JFK Limo Tour is a recreation of the motorcade route for students of history, people who are concerned with the issues of the assassination. And it--it started, I believe, last August in Dallas."
       "And what's your role in that?"
       "Now?"
       "Yeah."
       "None."
       "You had some role in August?"
       "Yes."
       "Is it a mock-up of the actual presidential limo that President Kennedy was shot in?"
       "That's correct."
       "You drive that from Love Field, where he landed that day, and take that route, and end up at Parkland Hospital?"
       "That's correct."
       "You have speakers in the car that have the gunshots and things like that--"
       "Yes."
       "And you sit in the car and narrate?"
       "Yes."
       It wasn't just sinus problems that drove Groden out of the Army, either. It was that, "and the fact that I was beaten up by my sergeant and, to sweep it under the rug, I was discharged." The two photos he was paid to authenticate had something in common: In both cases, photographers were alleging that the pictures captured spiritual presences, when in fact a cursory examination of the proof sheet indicated light streaks. Not, in short, a problem requiring painstaking, detailed analysis. The attorney and the witness quibble over whether Groden sold JFK autopsy photos to the Globe for $50,000. Gelblum produces a signed contract, Groden insists that he sold the paper a story about faked assassination photos, and allowed his autopsy pictures to be printed with the article "to prove a point."
       And then it gets almost cruel, Gelblum walking Groden slowly by all the exaggerations and overstatements in his résumé. You start to feel the sympathy pendulum swing a little bit--who hasn't padded his or her résumé? Well, genuine scientific authorities, maybe. Dr. Henry Lee, for example.
       Gelblum spends the rest of the morning haggling with Groden over the specifics of the anomalies he found in the photo. Within hours, school's out. Over the holidays, yet another photograph of Simpson wearing Those Shoes emerges, allegedly shot on the same day by another photographer. Groden's going to get another $2,000, but he's going to work hard for the money.

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